MIAMI — When the Florida Marlins president David Samson met with multimillionaire Norman Braman in 2002 about investing in the team, he could hardly have imagined the two would wind up on opposite sides of a lawsuit. Six years later, the two men stand on opposite sides of a deal that could mean a new ballpark for the Marlins, as part of what City Mayor Manny Diaz dubs the “Miami Megaplan.”
The $3 billion plan includes a new, retractable-roof baseball stadium on the site of the old Orange Bowl in Little Havana funded mostly by tourist tax dollars, plus $800 million in spending for downtown amenities such as two museums and a museum park at Bicentennial Park, a trolley service, construction of a tunnel beneath the port of Miami, and nearly $500 million to pay down unforeseen construction bond debt incurred by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.
Diaz and County Mayor Carlos Alvarez call the project an investment in the county's urban core, without the need for new taxes.
The stadium's $515 million price tag would be funded using $395 million in tourist tax dollars, and under the deal first brokered four years ago (when the total cost of the stadium was projected to be less than $400 million), the Marlins would invest about $120 million, borrow another $35 million from the county, and keep most of the profits from sports, music and other events at the stadium.
In addition, because the county owns the land, the ballpark would generate no property taxes.
The other parts of the “megaplan” would be financed by expanding the Community Redevelopment Agencies covering the struggling Overtown neighborhood to include Bayfront Park and other downtown locations on the water side of Biscayne Boulevard.
Braman vehemently rejects both ideas, and earlier this year, he filed a lawsuit against the city, the county, and the Marlins.
JUDGE POSTPONES TRIAL
A judge last month dismissed all but two counts of the suit, throwing out Braman's contention that the original funding for the Arsht Center misled investors, plus a count saying the Miami-Dade County Commission lacked the authority to redirect bond money to the stadium. Circuit Court Judge Jeri Beth Cohen halted the trial in late July, delaying her final ruling until mid-September.
When the case resumes, at issue will be the core of Braman's lawsuit: whether the public should be allowed to vote on the financing for the stadium, which the Marlins hope to open in 2011, and whether the stadium itself constitutes a public purpose – an important count, because it could halt the funding plan.
“The issue is not the stadium,” Braman said last week. “The issue is taking community redevelopment money that was meant to fight blight, and engaging in a shell game to construct four failed projects that they've been working on for years.”
Braman, who owns car dealerships across South Florida, is a sports fan; he used to own the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. But the auto magnate and arts patron, who has lived in South Florida for 40 years, also has a history of opposing private projects financed with public dollars. He successfully battled former Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie in the early 1980s, defeating a proposal to use a new sales tax to renovate the Orange Bowl.
A few years later, he financed a successful campaign to defeat then Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas’ push for a penny sales tax to improve the county's transportation infrastructure. As for the Marlins, court records say Braman declined to make the investment after the books Samson showed him demonstrated the team was deep in the red. Whatever its financial situation, he is adamant that the team should finance its own stadium.
“I could care less if they're building a stadium or not,” he said. “If you're using ad valorem tax dollars, you've got to go before the taxpayers. These CRA dollars were established to fight slum and blight. They weren't established to build trolley cars or tunnels or to build a stadium.”
Needless to say, Samson disagrees. And he and his stepfather, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who purchased the team in 2002, have threatened to move the team out of Florida if the stadium is not built.
“Without a stadium, the Marlins would not be able to stay in Florida. That's clear to everyone,” Samson said Monday.
“The stadium doesn't use taxpayer dollars, it uses tourism dollars,” Samson added. “The CRA dollars go to the performing arts center, which has been a tremendous boon to the neighborhood.”
Pressed about the Arsht Center's ongoing problems attracting audiences, Samson insists that it – and the megaplan – are crucial to Miami.
“It's one of the things that makes Miami a world-class city. You need convention centers and performing arts centers and museums,” he said. “There are very few world-class cities that don't have Major League Baseball.”
BRAMAN CHIDES BLACK COMMISSIONERS
Braman blames the Miami-Dade Commission for circumventing voters. And he has particularly sharp criticism for the commission's four African-American members, including District 3 Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes Overtown; and for the Overtown CRA, which is chaired by embattled City of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
“The biggest disgrace is how these African-American commissioners sell out their own people,” he said. “Shame on them.”
Val Screen, a 43-year-old attorney who is running against Edmonson in the August election, supports Braman's position.
“I don't think that one dime of public money should go to the Marlins stadium, whether its tourist tax money or not,” said Screen.
“The fact is that Jeffrey Loria has the money to finance his own stadium.”
Screen called her disagreement with Edmonson and the other black commissioners “a philosophical difference.”
“I'm not interested in providing corporate welfare to millionaires,” she said.
For her part, Edmonson says the core issue is the desperate need for jobs, particularly in District 3, which includes Overtown, Brownsville, Liberty City and Little Haiti. She said the commission's vote requires each part of the megaplan, including the stadium, to be brought back to the body for a separate vote on final approval.
“I think it's the duty of this county to stimulate its own economy for its own people,” Edmonson said on Tuesday. “We are at one of our lowest when it comes down to employment here in Miami-Dade County. I voted on it to ensure the viability of this county and if [when it comes back to the commission for a vote,] I see where this stadium will be the downfall for this community, then no, I will not support it. But if I see where [the stadium] is going to create jobs for the people of District 3, then I would have to support it.”
Edmonson pointed out that the county would ultimately own the stadium, creating a long-term asset. She also had some choice words for Braman.
EDMONSON BLASTS BRAMAN
“I don't understand why Mr. Braman of all people would suddenly take an interest in the black community, when over the years he has never done anything for the black community. As far as I can see, all he has done is sell our people Cadillacs.”
Sensitive to such criticism, Braman touts his record of supporting the community.
“We employ 375 people” at the automotive businesses in Miami, Braman said, “and when our construction is finished in November, we're going to be employing 500 people.”
Braman said his foundation also sponsors the “I Have a Dream” and PATH programs, which support minority youth achievement at Charles Drew Elementary in Liberty City.
Other critics point out that the Marlins ranked last in Major League Baseball in fan attendance last year, despite winning two championship titles, making it difficult to justify spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars to build the team a 37,000-seat facility.
Sushma Sheth, director of programs for the Miami Workers Center, said the money could be better used elsewhere.
A statement last week from the organization called the megaplan, “a perfect example of what's wrong with South Florida. Socialized risk, privatized profits. There has been zero community input on the megaplan. We need to stop the madness and put $3 billion where it belongs, in the hands of the people, in the service of public good; we could build affordable housing, expanding, anything but fattening the pockets of private interests.”
Still, Samson insists the plan hammered out by county leaders will benefit Miami, and that mainly public funding is the only way the stadium can be built. And he rejects the notion that a wealthy team like the Marlins should finance its own stadium.
“There are many companies that have rich executives and owners that are given incentives to do business in Miami. That's not the question. The question that cities ask is, ‘Do we want Major League Baseball?’ If so, then a public-private partnership is appropriate. We've offered the fifth-highest contribution of any team in baseball to show how committed we are to South Florida.”
Both sides have said they would appeal, should they lose in district court.
Photo: Norman Braman