Agency backs pro stadium funding requests

A rendering of what Sun Life Stadium would look like once upgrades are completed for the fall of 2016.
A rendering of what Sun Life Stadium would look like once upgrades are completed for the fall of 2016. Miami Dolphins

Florida’s economic-development agency on Friday gave support to the Miami Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium and three other professional sports facilities that are seeking state sales-tax dollars to help pay for construction projects.

It will now be up to members of the Joint Legislative Budget Commission to determine how the stadiums’ requests should be ranked and if any money should be awarded.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity advised Jacksonville, Orlando, Daytona International Speedway and Sun Life Stadium that their applications met all “statutory criteria.” In a letter, the department also recommended that lawmakers could approve all four.

Daytona International Speedway and Sun Life Stadium are each seeking $3 million a year for 30 years for ongoing improvements to those facilities. Orlando has requested $2 million a year for three decades to help pay for a planned $110 million soccer stadium. Jacksonville, with its application supported by the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, has asked for $1 million a year for three decades.

Lawmakers have set aside a $7 million pool of funding that can be used this year for stadium projects. But that isn’t enough to meet the requests of the four stadium projects, which collectively are seeking $9 million a year in payments.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the president’s office is reviewing the state agency’s letter and that a meeting of the Legislative Budget Commission has not been scheduled. The commission is made up of House and Senate members who meet periodically through the year to deal with budget-related issues.

Backers of the stadium-funding requests expressed confidence that their proposals would merit support from lawmakers.

However, Chris Hudson, the Florida director of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, questioned using tax dollars to pay expenses for businesses that collect billions of dollars.

“Our state residents support these professional sports franchises by buying tickets to games and races, purchasing jerseys and other licensed merchandise, and watching sporting events on live television, boosting ratings and advertising revenue,” Hudson said in an email. “Reaching into the state coffers to take money that should be going to health care and education is a poor way to repay their loyalty, all the more so in light of the (Office of Economic & Demographic Research) report that clearly shows how little these businesses give back to the state economy.”

The Department of Economic Opportunity’s letter came after a report earlier this month from the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research that was critical of past state stadium-funding efforts. The report said that for every $1 spent on professional sports facilities, the state gets a 30-cent return on its investment.

By comparison, the report indicated that subsidies to the Florida Sports Foundation, which draws visitors to Florida for amateur sporting events, has a return of $5.61 for each $1 that comes from taxpayers.

Harden noted that the study didn’t take into account ticket sales. The study said people would spend money on entertainment regardless of the stadium events.

“The numbers looked skewed,” Harden said. “About 40 percent of our dollars comes from folks who live in the state of Georgia. Because of the location of our franchise, we bring in a lot of dollars that otherwise wouldn’t come in.”

State lawmakers revamped the funding process for stadium projects during the 2014 legislative session in an attempt to reduce lobbying efforts for stadium money. Betta said the legislation created a new process that differs from what the research office studied.

The new law required applications to be filed by Nov. 1, 2014, for funding in 2015. It gave the Department of Economic Opportunity until Feb. 1 to determine if each application was economically viable.