Miami Dolphins pledge to pay for at least half of redone Sun Life Stadium

Team owner Stephen Ross pledges a stadium deal that has him putting in more money than the public does. In exchange, the Dolphins will promise to stay for 25 years.

01/15/2013 12:01 AM

09/08/2014 6:15 PM

The Miami Dolphins want a mix of state and local tax dollars to fund up to half of a $400 million renovation of their 1987 stadium as a way to keep the team in South Florida and continue attracting Super Bowls and other major sporting events.

Most of the public money would come from a higher hotel tax in Miami-Dade. This would be the third time in four years that the Dolphins have asked taxpayers to help improve the privately owned stadium, but the first time Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has pledged a specific amount of his money to the project. Ross, a billionaire real estate developer, said he would pay the majority of the costs for a renovation that would include a canopy to shield spectators from the sun and the rain.

“The dollar amounts I’m prepared to put in are probably unmatched compared to any comparable facility in the country,’’ Ross told reporters at a Monday news conference. “The burden isn’t all on me. ... I believe that this is the type of project that the entire community can benefit from.”

Under the Dolphins’ plan, the Florida Legislature would need to approve a bill that would give the team a $3 million rebate on state sales tax and allow Miami-Dade to lift its mainland hotel tax to 7 percent from 6 percent. Similar proposals by the team have failed in the past, but Ross touted the private dollars in the deal as a game-changer.

Ross and his lobbying team now face the task of winning tax dollars for a sports stadium amid lingering backlash against Miami and Miami-Dade spending almost $500 million on the new Marlins baseball park.

Norman Braman, the billionaire Miami auto magnate who led the opposition against the 2009 Marlins deal, said Monday evening he “will do everything I possibly can to fight this.”

“This is the Marlins revisited,’’ said Braman, a former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. “This is welfare for a billionaire.”

Like most professional sports teams in Florida, the Dolphins already receive $2 million a year from Florida in rebated sales taxes. The rebate was tied to then-owner H. Wayne Huizenga renovating the Dolphins’ stadium to house the Marlins, which he purchased in the 1990s to join the Dolphins in his stadium. The current rebate expires in 2023, and the Dolphins argue they deserve a rebate tied directly to football renovations.

The Dolphins hope to win state approval for the funding by late May, when Ross’ fellow NFL owners will decide whether to send the 2016 Super Bowl to Sun Life. South Florida and San Francisco are the two finalists for the game, which is considered a big prize given it will be the 50th Super Bowl.

“There are only 18 weeks before the envelope is opened in Boston,” Dolphins CEO Mike Dee said of the Super Bowl award. “We’re confident we can come together as a community and put our best foot forward.”

Late Monday, the Dolphins issued endorsements from two South Florida hotels: Loews Miami Beach (which is owned by the family that owns the New York Giants) and the Intercontinental in downtown Miami. “Preserving the stadium’s ability to host the kind of large-scale events that attract a critical mass is key for our continued ability to thrive as a tourist destination,’’ Intercontinental General Manager Robert Hill wrote in a statement.

The tax increase proposed by the Dolphins would raise the taxes charged guests at mainland hotels like the Intercontinental by 17 percent — from six cents on the dollar to seven cents. That would put the hotels on par with Miami Beach, which plans to raise its hotel tax to 7 percent in order to fund a renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center.

In exchange for public funding, Ross said the Dolphins would sign a contract pledging to stay in Sun Life for almost three decades.

“I promise we will keep the franchise here in Miami and playing in that stadium for the next 25 years,’’ he said. In a later meeting with Miami Herald reporters and editors, the 72-year-old Ross added: “If I were to sell the team — or not be here — you could be assured the Dolphins will be playing here.”

The pledge to keep the team in South Florida is one of several elements that weren’t part of the Dolphins’ previous try for public dollars. In 2011, the Dolphins proposed a 7 percent hotel tax in 2011 as a way to improve Sun Life, with the stadium and the Miami Beach Convention Center splitting the proceeds. That bill died after passing one Senate committee.

The 2011 law also would have allowed Broward County to raise its hotel tax to improve the stadium. This time, the Dolphins are only targeting the Miami-Dade tax after Broward commissioners voted against spending any money on Sun Life.

And while Huizenga tried for a second sales-tax rebate in 1997, the Dolphins did not ask for the extra dollars in 2011. The new dollars would help make the numbers work for a more expensive venture than the $225 million price tag the Dolphins attached to their 2011 plan.

Marlins backlash was also an obstacle in 2011. But the mood has soured even more following a federal securities investigation into the government bonds that financed the deal, and a series of trades by the Marlins that jettisoned star players and cut payroll by millions.

In 2009, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria agreed to pay about 25 percent of the $639 million project, contributing a combination of rent and construction funds worth $155 million.

Miami-Dade owns the Little Havana ballpark, but the Marlins keep the revenue. Ross owns Sun Life and pays about $3 million a year in property taxes.

Ross suggested he might be willing to put in well more than 50 percent of the construction money into the deal if he could negotiate some sort of operating arrangement with Miami-Dade that would lower his yearly costs. That’s similar to the deal Miami-Dade gave the Miami Heat when it wanted a new basketball arena downtown. The Heat agreed to finance construction of its county-owned arena in exchange for a $6 million subsidy paid out of county hotel taxes.

Braman, the Marlins critic, said the current economic climate makes the Dolphins’ latest request more distasteful. “It’s ludicrous to be going for a sales tax refund when the state has been cutting back funding in education and other areas because of the recession,” he said. “That’s wrong.”

But Ross argued the 26-year-old stadium needs work done now before it slips further behind modern stadiums competing for Super Bowl and other major events. He said this proposal was designed to overcome past obstacles in the political arena.

“Today, there is never a right time to ask for public dollars,’’ Ross said. “This is a lot different than it was before. We listened.”

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