It’s a crystal clear Wednesday night. The Miami Marlins just drubbed the Boston Red Sox 14-6. And right about now, thirsty baseball fans should be pouring out of Marlins Park and into Ysbel Medina’s sports bar two blocks away.
That’s what Medina envisioned when he says he plunged $700,000 into the Batting Cage on Northwest Seventh Street and timed its opening with the Marlins’ first season at their $639 million ballpark in Little Havana. But the 26,000 fans leaving in streams large enough to snarl traffic are mostly walking into the surrounding neighborhood toward their cars — not the businesses that Miami’s politicians and the team said would thrive in the Marlins’ shadow.
“The Marlins ...” says Medina, whose bar is mostly empty, save a few stragglers drinking draft beers and eating cheeseburgers. “Man, the Marlins. I don’t know what to say about them.”
Well into a fourth disappointing season in the new stadium, little has changed in the surrounding neighborhood. Predictions that restaurants, cafeterias and hotels would open around the publicly funded park have proved false. The area surrounding the stadium is still pocked with small strip malls, empty lots, vacant buildings and affordable housing. Even the city-owned retail stores in the parking garages surrounding the stadium remain mostly empty.
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So as Miami’s politicians once again negotiate to build a sports stadium on the former site of the Orange Bowl, there is talk about what a Major League Soccer franchise would mean for fans and Miami’s global brand, but little boasting about how a second professional sports franchise will share the wealth with its neighbors.
“I don’t think we should promise economic development for the area if the soccer stadium is built,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said. “I don’t think that should be the sales pitch because it’s not a reality.”
When city and Miami-Dade County leaders signed off on the complicated multi-government deal in 2009 to fund, among other projects, a new Marlins Park, saddling the public with more than $2 billion in debt, one of the big selling points of the deal was economic revitalization. Promises were made that, if a new stadium arrived at the former site of the Orange Bowl, so would new businesses and new money.
But the Marlins’ average daily attendance is, at 22,263 fans, among the lowest in the league, according to ESPN. And resentment over the costly stadium deal increased after the Marlins’ finances were leaked to Deadspin, showing their profits, and the team traded away some of its best players during the midst of a disastrous first season at its ballpark.
Should a soccer team be built on a city-owned park across the street, the MLS season would run from February to October, and David Beckham’s franchise would host 17 home games in a venue with somewhere around 25,000 seats. If University of Miami football games return to the neighborhood, games at a larger venue would continue on into December.
But now that Miami Beckham United has settled on city land across 16th Avenue from Marlins Park as the site of their future stadium, no one is claiming the surrounding community will see a sudden renaissance if soccer comes to town.
Miami Beckham United hasn’t produced an economic impact analysis to promote a stadium, and the Beckham team declined to comment for this article. Regalado, among the biggest opponents of the Marlins deal while at the time sitting as a Miami commissioner, says an expected referendum on any soccer deal will be likely sold to the public based on the popularity of soccer, a community-benefits agreement the city is negotiating in exchange for the use of its land, and the branding potential of having an MLS franchise in Little Havana.
But, quietly, there is some faint hope that a soccer franchise in a privately funded stadium would come with a clean slate free of the controversy that surrounded the public financing of Marlins Park. Even Medina, who keeps the Batting Cage running by turning it into a nightclub on weekend nights, hopes a team free of controversy can bring money into the area.
“When they started in the beginning, my business was doing very well. But after they traded a lot of people... the team went down and the customers don’t go too much to the stadium,” Medina said.
Frank Martinez, owner of the 100 Fires Cigars on the southwest corner of the stadium’s west plaza, believes “a lot of people are still sour” about the inaugural season fire sale, which caused some businesses interested in moving into the Marlins stadium garages to walk away from lease negotiations with the city’s parking authority. Right now, only a Subway and a dialysis center are open, on the other side of the stadium. At one point, the city considered putting government offices in the shops simply to fill them out.
But Martinez says his business is turning a profit, and he’s working on an expansion into a 3,000-square-foot space next door in anticipation of Beckham’s arrival in Miami.
“They’ve had a hard time renting out the garages. There’s still a poor perception of the area,” Martinez said, but added he’s “really hopeful” that soccer will improve business.
Tony Villamil, the economist who said the Marlins would pump $300 million in annual business into the local economy once the team began playing ball, says there are local businesses that do make good money providing services to the stadium, and it’s too early to claim failure on sports’ promised impact to Little Havana. He said the idea that an entertainment district would pop up around the stadium was always a long-term vision, and one that required zoning changes in the area around the stadium, which never happened.
“If you do soccer, now you’ve got almost year-round entertainment,” he said.
But even Villamil acknowledges the challenges of the Orange Bowl site, which neither the Marlins nor Beckham United chose as a first or even second priority. The stadium isn’t near major public transportation services and was built in an area with low commercial activity, where the median family income is, at around $25,000, among the lowest in the county.
Beckham partner Simon Fuller once called the area “spiritually tainted” in a reference to the Marlins deal, and before recently changing its mind, Major League Soccer said the property was entirely out of the picture in the quest to find a home for a Miami franchise. Stadium analysts also say sports franchises design their buildings so that their fans spend all their money inside the stadium, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when stores don’t suddenly open around them.
“The notion of stadiums as an economic catalyst is backwards to begin with,” said Neil deMause, who co-wrote the book Field of Schemes and runs a blog by the same name about publicly financed stadiums. “I think everyone is right to be disappointed in the fact that there are all these empty stores in the parking garages in Miami, but I’m not in the slightest bit surprised because it’s what I see in city after city.”
DeMause says a soccer stadium isn’t going to be any different. And right now, though negotiations are in the early stages, much of the talk about the impact of a Beckham soccer franchise in Little Havana has focused on the fact that, to complete the lot needed for stadium, the team needs to purchase some apartment buildings and a daycare to the north of a city park used by the neighborhood and a Special Olympics football team.
Little Havana-area Commissioner Frank Carollo has been among the loudest voices calling for sensitivity for those who would lose their homes and businesses. But he’s also hopeful that soccer can be a positive influence on the neighborhood, even if it’s not an economic savior.
“Unfortunately, you’ve seen that the expectations from before haven’t come to fruition. You can clearly see that with the retail of the parking garages,” Carollo said. But, he hopes, “This may be our second chance at getting it done.”