A $121-million plan to rehabilitate the iconic Miami Marine Stadium and turn the surrounding area into a maritime complex, announced amidst much hoopla only last week, crumbled Thursday after Miami officials balked at a privately funded proposal and indicated they’d rather pursue their own plan — even if it means spending millions in public dollars.
City commissioners could have voted Thursday to formally negotiate a potential 98-year lease for the stadium and two dozen surrounding waterfront acres with the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium. The not-for-profit group — fronted by former pop star Gloria Estefan — only last week held a celebratory press conference with the mayor at the graffiti-scrawled stadium to announce they’d secured financing for a rehabilitation and a commitment from the Miami International Boat Show to host the massive event on Virginia Key.
But that joy soured after details of their project emerged, and with them questions about rosy financial projections and “self-dealing” and a team of private partners that included a financier who had just filed for personal bankruptcy. Civic groups and the Village of Key Biscayne also raised concerns about a proposed commercial complex of a 125,000-square-foot expo center and 280-slip dry-dock storage facility.
By Wednesday evening, it was clear the deal was dead on arrival. So on Thursday, the not-for-profit Friends group dropped its plan — and corporate partners TPA Group and EXPO-Miami — and the city announced it would pursue a smaller deal that would focus only on stadium improvements and keeping the boat show in Miami.
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City Manager Daniel Alfonso said his staff will work overtime to bring a new proposal back to the city commission on Jan. 8.
“I think that we’re not taking anything off the table right now,” Alfonso said after the hearing. “Certainly there’s a great possibility the city might be looking to finance some of the improvements needed for the portion of the parkland needed for the boat show.”
The move wasn’t crushing for Friends. But it was embarrassing, and Thursday’s hearing spells an end to its two-year run as master developer empowered by a memorandum of understanding that expires in January.
“I’m perplexed,” said Hilario Candela, a Friends co-founder and the original architect of the stadium. “Now the conversation I hear is as if the memorandum of understanding had never happened.”
Commissioners did indeed change their minds Thursday. They spoke about wanting a competitive bidding process and perhaps a voter referendum for redevelopment and operations of the prime waterfront property.
And yet only 16 months ago, they voted to have the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium take control of the property in order to better pursue contributions and come back with a redevelopment plan. But on the Thursday they objected to the proposal they saw, and Commissioner Francis Suarez pointed out that while Friends touted $22 million in potential contributions, all but about $5 million was “speculative,” and $3 million of that was already in hand when Friends took control of the site.
“The question is, in these two years, they’ve really raised $2 million. That’s the truth,” said Suarez. “If this process would have been done better, we may be having a joyful meeting rather than a somber reality check over what’s transpired.”
Suarez also said he felt like Friends had sprung last week’s proposal on the city at the last minute, creating a pressure situation to approve the deal or appear unsupportive of a stadium restoration project that is widely embraced. Other commissioners raised objections, including Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who noted that Candela and fellow co-founder Jorge Hernandez stood to benefit as architects on the project.
Sarnoff said it was questionable for leaders of a not-for-profit to push a no-bid deal, and added it raised questions about self-dealing.
After the hearing, Hernandez said their fee was only four percent of construction costs, which he called standard. Candela noted that they’d spent the last seven years fighting to restore the stadium, and during the last two paid for crucial services like surveys that the city wouldn’t fund.
“We have been working for seven years next February without a penny,” said Candela. “All of a sudden now they have the money to do everything?”
Friends, however, figures to remain a part of any stadium rehab. Alfonso said his staff will continue to talk with the group as it pursues a restoration plan.
Mayor Tomás Regalado, who said last week he hoped the commission would approve Friends’ project, said Thursday evening that he thought if anything the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium fared better than he’d expected, given the way their project fell apart this week. He said the group will still play an integral role in restoring the stadium to its former glory.
“I still think it was a good day,” he said.