Let’s make a Dolphins stadium deal — or not

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has kept low profile as he seeks tax money to renovate SunLife Stadium.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has kept low profile as he seeks tax money to renovate SunLife Stadium.

Yes, OK, alright already, we get it. The SunLife stadium deal is not the Marlins Stadium deal. Almost nothing alike.

Except in the most important way: Two very rich pro sports franchise owners get millions of tax dollars for stadiums that will principally benefit them and increase the value of their teams. That much is the same.

But there are significant differences, the main one being that the Marlins never opened their books to public scrutiny, and the Dolphins did. What the Dolphins’ books showed was not pretty. Owning a major sports franchise is expensive and not always profitable. The Dolphins are something like that hoary definition of a boat: a hole in the water that you throw money down. Steve Ross paid $1 billion for the Dolphins and has forked over at least $100 million more, including sizable checks to make up for team operating deficits.

Ross, however, gets to hang with other rich NFL franchise owners, a very elite group, as well as famous athletes and celebrities. He has even made a few celebs minor equity partners in the Dolphins. Curious, isn’t it, that we haven’t heard a peep from any of them on the SunLife upgrades? Even more curious, we haven’t heard a word directly from Ross. What’s up with that?

The second major difference in the deals is that voters were denied a say in the Marlins Stadium debacle, but may get to vote for the SunLife modernization. I was there the other day when Dolphins CEO Mike Dee delivered a check for $4.7 million to cover the county’s cost for the special election. He seemed to be happy about forking over the money, which was Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s first condition: That Miami-Dade voters have a say on the stadium improvements without paying for the election.

Gimenez was clearly a tough negotiator in the talks with the Dolphins, unlike his predecessor, who gave away the store to the Marlins. The deal between Miami-Dade and the Dolphins is so dense and detailed that you’d need a Wharton MBA and Harvard J.D. to completely understand it. For us liberal-arts majors, the deal’s details are a MEGO (my eyes glaze over).

But here’s what you need to know: Miami-Dade taxpayers are on the hook for very little. The Dolphins acquiesced to virtually every one of Gimenez’s major demands. He acceded to only one of theirs — to delete the ballot language requiring that Miami receive either Super Bowl 50 or 51. The Dolphins persuaded Gimenez and county commissioners that Miami’s Super Bowl bid would be at a severe disadvantage by specifying those two games. The ballot now simply says Miami must be awarded “a Super Bowl” by NFL owners in May.

The supposedly neutral May 14 ballot language is a bit troubling. County Commissioner Steve Bovo suggested that it had been written by a pollster to elicit a Yes vote. The mayor snapped back at him, saying that the county’s best attorney had written the question to be clear, fair and objective. Perhaps, but it still smells of focus groups and polls. Several experienced politicos have confided to me the ballot language looks cooked in favor of the Dolphins. Attorney Kendall Coffey, an election-law expert hired by the Dolphins, came into the negotiations late and evidently helped craft the ballot language.

Who knows if wording mildly favorable to the Dolphins will make a difference? I doubt it. The resentment over the Marlins Stadium deal, fairly or not, keeps seeping into discussions about SunLife. If my emails are any indication of wider public opinion, voters are extremely reluctant to contribute to “corporate welfare for a billionaire,” as billionaire Norman Braman puts it. Braman, the chief opponent of the Marlins Stadium deal, is working hard to kill the Dolphins bill in Tallahassee without which there will be no sales-tax rebate, no bed tax hike and no referendum.

The Dolphins have launched their own PR blitz to turn around public opinion and hired two venerable Miamians to run it: Attorney H.T. Smith, who is black, and GOP fundraiser Jorge Arrizurieta, a Cuban American. Good guys, shrewd move. They kicked off their campaign the other day at the NFL Youth Education Town (YET) in Liberty City, a shining example of NFL and Dolphins generosity. Thousands of kids have been tutored, mentored, coached and counseled at the YET center, and Smith says thousands more will be with future Miami Super Bowls, each contributing $500,000 to the YET. African-American voters may be the single most enthusiastic voting bloc for the Sun Life proposal, especially voters in Miami Gardens where property tax revenues would increase with stadium improvements.

Arrizurieta has a tougher path ahead convincing Cuban Americans, who love the Dolphins but not impuestos (taxes). Bovo says his Hispanic constituents in Hialeah and Northwest Miami-Dade will vote against the stadium proposal. “The average Cuban is never going to a Super Bowl,” he says. Nor will the average Anglo or black Miamian, for that matter. Super Bowls are about the Fortune 500 corporate elite entertaining other members of corporate America.

Steve Ross of The Related Companies is part of that small, mega-rich corporate elite, a real 1 percenter. Mayor Gimenez says Ross was at the table throughout the negotiations and that he found him tough, smart and personable. But most people here don’t know Ross or understand why he doesn’t pay for the stadium improvements himself. He’s worth more than $4 billion, Forbes says.

So I’ll say it again. Mr. Ross, if you want $379 million in taxpayers’ dollars — $289 million from Miami-Dade mainland hotels’ bed taxes, $90 million from a state sales-tax rebate — to fix up your stadium, then we need to hear from you. Not from your CEO, your surrogates or PR men. You.

Hold on, this just in: Steve Ross has offered to sit down with me on Friday.

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