Timing in sports and politics is everything. Standing at that perilous intersection is Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who wants public funding to pay for part of a $400 million renovation he proposes for the privately built stadium. And he says he has until May to get this right, before NFL owners select the 2016 Super Bowl site for the big 50th anniversary.
Talk about pressure, real and fabricated.
Two years ago, in the midst of the Mother of all Recessions, the Dolphins were pushing for a canopy of sorts to protect fans, after a Super Bowl game got rained on. That trial balloon sank quickly. Now Ross says he has listened to the community’s concerns and pledges to pay for more than half of the renovation, which would include the canopy to protect fans from rain during a football game (rare) or from too much sun during the summer months, when the Dolphins (public sweetener here for our diverse community) want to lure international soccer teams.
Absolutely, Ross is offering a better deal than the one negotiated by Miami-Dade County on the $639 million Marlins stadium and parking complex. In the Marlins deal, the county was left on the hook for about two-thirds of the cost. With interest over 40 years, the bond debt balloons to more than $2 billion, and the city of Miami built a stadium parking garage from which it gets no revenue during games.
And though the Marlins deal uses the bed tax as the main source of public revenue, the county had to pledge local taxpayers’ money if the bed tax doesn’t raise enough each year to chip away at the debt. (So far, tourism has been strong and the bed tax has covered the payments. But imagine if, say, five years from now our economy tanks again and local taxpayers have to cover the stadium payments while other public needs go begging.)
Ross’ proposal comes while Miami-Dade County is slowly recovering from the recession, and weary residents aren’t feeling too kind toward billionaire team owners. Worse still for Ross, it comes after the Marlins’ new stadium left a majority of local residents feeling betrayed that their elected officials cut such a bad deal, especially after reports that the Marlins’ financials were much healthier than they made it seem when they were negotiating with county and city officials.
Most of the tax money for the Dolphins stadium re-do would come from increasing the bed tax on hotels in the mainland to 7 percent from the current 6 percent, (excluding Miami Beach, which already has the bed tax targeted for revamping the convention center). The tax the Dolphins want to use was created specifically for sports facilities. The resort tax overall also can be used to pay for tourism-related initiatives, such as marketing for tourist destinations and construction of sports arenas, stadiums and arts venues.
Bed, sports and beverage taxes have been an easy way for the political class to help build big sports or entertainment facilities without hitting up a majority of local taxpayers directly. And because it’s mostly tourists’ money, elected officials don’t have to ask voters for approval in a referendum.
Still, after the Marlins fiasco, the Dolphins would build good will in our community by having voters say yea or nay to adding another penny on the bed tax to raise about $10 million a year for the stadium revamp. Ross and Dolphins CEO Mike Dee say there’s no time for that. They hope to wrap it up before the NFL picks the 2016 Super Bowl site.
Sorry, gentlemen, but that’s a pretty arbitrary deadline. There will be other years to compete for the bowl, and San Francisco, which is in the running for the 2016 Super Bowl, is building a brand new stadium. What are the odds they’ll be passed up?
Plus, there’s the issue of bed-tax money going to a privately owned stadium sitting on publicly owned land. Is that even legal? The solution might be negotiating some type of operating agreement similar to the one the Miami Heat have with the county to operate the downtown arena, but that’s not something that can be wrapped up in a few weeks.
The most troublesome part to me of the Dolphins’ proposal is their bid to get back about $3 million a year in sales taxes that their patrons pay when they attend stadium events — a tax break that several sports facilities throughout Florida now enjoy. There, too, timing is everything.
In a year when the state is starting to come up from under water, when the Legislature will meet soon without the specter of next year’s budget facing a potential deficit in revenue, and after public schools and universities have been hit hard with cuts because of the ailing economy, asking the state to give up money that could go to help kids or the elderly isn’t in the Tallahassee cards.
As it is, the Dolphins already get about $2 million a year from a state tax rebate. That rebate, tied to changes made to the stadium to accommodate the Marlins when they played baseball there, expires in 2023 .
The Dolphins may indeed find a way to structure a deal that’s good for this community, and unlike the Marlins management, Ross promises to put up a whole lot more cash and make public the Dolphins’ financials (as much as the NFL will “allow”) to make his case.
That’s a start, but my sense is getting to the goal line will take a lot more time than three months of negotiations can achieve. And it should.