The Miami Dolphins are reviving their failed bid to win tax dollars for a football stadium. But team executives want no comparisons to a successful bid to win tax dollars for a baseball stadium.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has called a press conference for Monday to unveil a plan for an improved Sun Life Stadium. Sources say the plan will include asking state and local governments to help pay for a $400 million renovation of the 1987 facility.
State lawmakers in recent years rebuffed the Dolphins when the team asked for help on a less-expensive renovation. And while the economy and state finances are more favorable this time around, Dolphin executives see a bigger challenge now from lingering backlash against the $639 million ballpark taxpayers built for the Miami Marlins in order to move the baseball team from their old home in Sun Life. .
“It can’t be anything close to what the Marlins did,’’ said state Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat whose Miami Gardens district includes Sun Life Stadium and who sponsored a 2011 bill to raise hotel taxes to fund the Dolphins renovation plan. “Unless you do something totally counter to what the Marlins did, nobody is going to vote for it.”
Both the Marlins and the Dolphins declined to comment for this story. The Dolphins have not released details of how they want to pay for the renovation, or what they want to do the stadium. But sources close to the team describe an extensive renovation of Sun Life, including adding a partial roof, a redesign of the seating configuration to improve views of the field, and shifting capacity from the low-priced seats in the upper deck to the more expensive seating closer to the sidelines. Without the space demands of a baseball field, the front row will move 18 feet closer to the field, according to a person briefed on the plans.
Polls showed Miami and Miami-Dade’s 2009 votes to build the baseball stadium with 75 percent public money were never popular. But the Marlins’ recent stripping of star players from their payroll has made the new Little Havana park Topic A when it comes to plotting a Dolphins’ victory for winning tax dollars themselves.
Dolphins executives plan to pursue two funding sources from state and local government, according to several people familiar with the team’s plans. For the first funding stream, the Dolphins plan to ask Miami-Dade to raise taxes charged mainland hotels from 6 percent to 7 percent and earmark the extra money for the stadium. The Dolphins also plan to ask Florida for an additional $2 million rebate on sales taxes on top of the $2 million the stadium already receives from the state each year under a special subsidy for professional sports teams.
Ross is expected to pledge a significant amount of the renovation money himself. Sources who have been briefed on the Dolphins’ proposal say the total pricetag for the project is $400 million. That’s almost double the renovation budget the Dolphins proposed when the team last went to the Legislature for money in 2011.
At the time, the Dolphins unveiled a $225 million redo of Sun Life with expanded sideline seating, high-definition lighting and a partial roof that would both shade seats during hot games and shield spectators from the kind of downpour that drenched the stands during the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami Gardens. The Dolphins, top executives at the NFL and some community leaders have warned that without upgrades to Sun Life, South Florida risks losing its standing as one of the nation’s top venues for the Super Bowl and college football championships.
“We need to keep up with the times,’’ said Phillis Oeters, the chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. “Sports is big, big business here.”
Backlash against the 2009 Marlins deal was an obstacle when the Dolphins asked for tax money in 2010 and 2011, but the baseball team’s unloading of ace Josh Johnson, star shortstop Jose Reyes and other stand-out players in November revived public anger against the financing arrangement.
Baseball aside, the Dolphins also must face a Republican-controlled legislature known for its anti-tax philosophy, and a public largely against the deal from the outset.
A Miami Herald poll from October found 84 percent of Miami-Dade voters against spending tax dollars to build a roof on Sun Life.
How easily can the Dolphins draw a line between themselves and the Marlins? A full scorecard won’t be available until the Dolphins unveil the details of their proposal. But the financial issues include:
Like the Marlins, the Dolphins plan to ask for millions of dollars in hotel taxes for their stadium plan. Raising taxes on Miami-Dade’s mainland hotels to 7 percent would raise an additional $10 million a year.
The Marlins deal relied on hotel taxes for most of the construction funds. But while about $320 million in public debt was tied to taxes charged hotel guests, a small portion of the Marlins stadium package also borrowed against general county funds – the same dollars used for schools, police and other everyday municipal needs.
“I think it’s a good use of the hotel tax, improving Dolphin Stadium,’’ said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, one of the fiercest opponents to the Marlins deal while a city council member. “The difference is [the Marlins plan] was a very bad deal for Miami. They used $50 million in general obligation bonds to fund that stadium.”
Hotel taxes are mostly paid by tourists. If the Dolphins ask for a larger rebate on state tax dollars, that money could be seen as siphoning off funds that Florida could be spending on teachers, safety and other needs amid a tight budgetary climate.
Like many sports facilities, the Dolphins’ stadium already receives an annual $2 million refund on state sales tax, which the team won in the 1990s to retrofit the stadium to house the Marlins when then-Dolphins owner Wayne Huzienga first brought the baseball team to South Florida.
Dolphins executives have privately said they will ask for a new $2 million rebate tied solely to football renovations. The original rebate ends in 2023. Huizenga sold the Marlins to commodities broker John Henry in 1998 and the Dolphins to Ross in 2008. Art dealer Jeff Loria bought the Marlins in 2002 and moved the team to the new stadium in Little Havana last year.
Alone among South Florida’s four major sports teams, the Dolphins play in a privately owned stadium that sits on county land. Last year, the team paid about $3 million in property taxes, according to county records.
The Dolphins may have to give up ownership of the facility to use public dollars in a renovation. Miami-Dade owns the Marlins ballpark, as well as the AmericanAirlines Arena, which the Heat built with private dollars in exchange for the land and a yearly subsidy of $6 million from the county. A restructured ownership arrangement with Miami-Dade will be examined closely for lost revenue, rent and other potential impacts on local budgets.
Loria ultimately agreed to pay up to $155 million toward a $639 million stadium and garage complex, with Miami and Miami-Dade funding the rest. That left the government agreeing to fund about 75 percent of the construction costs.
Ross hasn’t said how much money he would put up toward a renovated Sun Life Stadium, but that portion could be a crucial dividing line between the Marlins’ deal and the Dolphins’ plan.
Braynon, the Miami Gardens state senator expected to sponsor the Dolphins’ bill again in this legislative session, said he wouldn’t support a deal like the Marlins got, with the team paying less for a stadium than the government does.
“They have to have the most skin in the game,’’ Braynon said. The Dolphins “have to be the majority partner for us to be part of the conversation.”
Miami Herald staff writer Barry Jackson contributed to this report.