The Miami Dolphins took their Sun Life Stadium renovations pitch on the road Thursday, highlighting support from a county commissioner and the mayor of Miami Gardens, the team’s hometown for 26 years.
The politicians’ backing carries weight in the city that perhaps knows the Dolphins best.
But that neighborly history also has made some people in Miami Gardens skeptical about the team’s promises of economic benefits from the planned $400 million in renovations, about of half of which would be funded by taxes.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert and Dolphins CEO Mike Dee stressed that upgrading the stadium to attract more international soccer games and concerts during the football offseason would employ more locals, bring customers to the city’s shops and restaurants, and spur development on vacant parcels nearby.
“When people come to a Super Bowl or a national championship in Miami Gardens, they eat on Brickell, and they sleep on South Beach. And they shop in our stores. They support our businesses,” Gilbert said. “That’s what this is about.”
He called the Dolphins “our largest taxpayer and a vital community partner.” The team sponsors some of the city’s biggest events, including the annual Jazz in the Gardens festival.
But that has not done much to assuage the concerns of others in the city, who say Miami Gardens has received little payoff from being home to the stadium.
“I’m a Dolphins fan, but I have to say, very honestly, there has not been an incredible windfall to this community,” said former City Councilman André Williams.
Williams said the city should draw up a marketing plan to lure sports fans and event-goers to nearby businesses, to ensure that any deal to receive county taxes makes sense.
The Dolphins’ proposed financing plan relies on a new annual $3 million state subsidy and a hike of county mainland hotel taxes to 7 percent from 6 percent.
The state money could go instead to public services, Jordan acknowledged Thursday.
“Those dollars do go to schools, and to roads and highways,” she said. But other teams receive state subsidies from sales-tax revenue they help generate, and the Dolphins deserve more of that money, she added.
“It’s bringing our money back to our community — I don’t see a problem with that,” she said.
On Monday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whom commissioners tasked with negotiating with the team, announced that the Dolphins had reversed their position and agreed to put a potential deal for tax dollars to a public vote — before May 22, when NFL owners will award the 2016 and ’17 Super Bowls.
As part of its campaign to drum up support, the team held Thursday’s news conference at the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex in Miami Gardens, down the street from the stadium.
Dolphins players and coaches sometimes volunteer at the complex, Jordan said. But there was irony to the location: Ferguson, a former county commissioner, burst onto the political scene leading the opposition to the stadium.
Ten-year-old Miami Gardens, the county’s third-largest city, didn’t exist at the time. Instead, Ferguson rallied residents from the Crestview and Rolling Oaks communities. A homeowners association filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the county, arguing building the facility would break up middle-class black neighborhoods.
Since then, the debate about the stadium’s impact has continued in Miami Gardens, a city without a beach or other tourist attractions.
In 2010, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross pitched building a multi-million-dollar water park, which residents could use year-round, on a 40-acre parking lot across the street from the stadium, but that idea was shelved.
“It sounded like it would be fun for the kids in this community,” lamented longtime resident Geraldine Solomon. “I wish the water park would come instead of this remodeling.”
Charles Brodbeck, who opened sandwich shop Sub Center on the corner of Northwest Second Avenue and 199th Street in 1974, said small businesses rely on local customers — not outsiders brought in by games and events at Sun Life. During big events, he said, locals avoid the area and hurt business.
“We don’t reap any giant profits or benefits,” he said, adding that when Miami Gardens hosted the 2007 and ’10 Super Bowls, “People were coming straight from the Turnpike, into the stadium, and back out.”
Mayor Gilbert said that’s why he wants the renovations: to lure developers to vacant parcels next to and across from the stadium.
“This is a major sports facility that doesn’t have restaurants around it,” he said. “It doesn’t have a real, quality hotel around it. It doesn’t have places where people can spend money.”
Dolphins CEO Dee pointed to Miami Gardens’ busy Walmart — across the street from the stadium — as an example of Sun Life’s economic impact. But, he acknowledged, “We’ve got to do more.’’
Elected officials promised a Little Havana economic revival when they signed off on the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark in 2008. But there has been little evidence of that outside the stadium, which opened last year, other than a new eatery or two.
“Anyone who’s started a business knows that it takes at least three years to get that business going,” Commissioner Jordan said. “Economic development takes time.”
Two hotels have approached her office about opening in her district, she added, though that was unrelated to the Dolphins’ plan.
Dee refrained from mentioning the Team That Must Not be Named, referring only to “the other facility” and reiterating that any public financing would be different than the unpopular Marlins deal.
The Dolphins, Dee emphasized, are the only local professional sports team that pays property taxes, which fund public services.
What he didn’t say: a potential deal could give ownership of the stadium, which sits on county land, to Miami-Dade, similar to the arrangement between the county-owned AmericanAirlines Arena and the Miami Heat.
In that case, the county would provide an operating subsidy to the team, which would no longer have to pay taxes.