Trend in the Region

Dolphins Make Play for Public Funds

BRADENTON, Fla. — The first team in the National Football League to play in a privately financed stadium now wants as much as $225 million of public funds to bring its 24-year-old facility up to “world-class” ­standards.

The Miami Dolphins say their stadium needs upgrades that include a “modern canopy-style roof like that which sheltered World Cup fans from the sun, wind, and rain in South Africa,” in addition to new high-definition video screens and extended seating closer to the field. But the Dolphins’ plans are not sitting well with the Broward County Commission and a professional hockey-team owner there.

Though Sun Life Stadium in north Miami-Dade County has hosted five of the NFL’s coveted Super Bowls, three Bowl Champion Series national championship games, and concerts, the team says on its website, www.visionforsfl.com, that the stadium upgrades are necessary to remain competitive for future Super Bowls and other premier events.

The impetus for making improvements to Sun Life Stadium first grew out of concern expressed by a Super Bowl host committee report, which said the facility was rapidly falling behind other NFL venues as a site for future Super Bowls, according to the team.

The Dolphins worked with Florida Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who has filed a bill that would allow Miami-Dade and adjacent Broward to hike their bed taxes to support bond financing for the stadium improvements. Fresen has said publicly that the bill would require Miami-Dade to split its increased bed-tax revenues between the stadium and long-sought improvements at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Broward commissioners voted to oppose the bill last week after hearing a presentation at a public meeting from Michael Yormark, president of Sunrise Sports & Entertainment and owner of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers franchise.

The Panthers play in a $185 million, bond-financed arena called BankAtlantic Center that is owned by Broward County. It opened in September 1998 and hosts concerts, family shows, and other major touring acts along with Panthers games.

“The Dolphins clearly intend to turn their stadium into a multi-purpose entertainment facility that can compete with the BankAtlantic Center for entertainment programming,” Yormark said. “So their request is, in effect, to use Broward County tax dollars to help a privately owned Miami-Dade facility compete with a publicly owned facility in Broward County. As such, we remain vehemently opposed to that request.”

Sun Life Stadium — originally known as Joe Robbie Stadium — is on land owned by Miami-Dade County and leased to the Dolphins for $1 a year, according to Dolphins spokesman Ric Katz.

It is not clear how bond financing would be accomplished under the current private-ownership structure of the stadium or if taxable bonds would be sold for the financing.

“They are nowhere near the point of issuing county-backed bonds,” Katz said. “We’ll be waiting quite a while for legislative action.”

Even if the bill passes, it currently requires a supermajority vote from each county commission to increase the bed tax. Broward vice mayor John Rodstrom said it appeared from commission opposition to the bill that the bed tax proposal is “dead on arrival.”

The Dolphins have not asked Broward for money and have told elected officials little about their proposed improvements, according to Rodstrom, who is a managing director of public finance for Sterne Agee & Leach Inc. The firm does no business with Broward County.

“The issue they are claiming is they need to make certain improvements to continue to land a Super Bowl, and absent those improvements, we may never see a Super Bowl again,” Rodstrom said. “Some people think we will continue to see Super Bowls because the location is so desirable for folks coming to South Florida. The Panthers believe we will have Super Bowls without the improvements.”

The issue came up before Broward commissioners as they began consideration of the annual legislative package of bills they planned to have their lobbyist support or oppose in the upcoming session of the state Legislature, which begins March 8.

Broward’s lobbyist is Ron Book, who also is a lobbyist for the Dolphins.

In addition to opposing the tourist tax bill, Broward commissioners ordered their attorney to study options they may have relating to lobbyist conflicts of interest.

Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca called the request by the Dolphins “shameful.”

“This organization has quite a nerve asking for Broward County dollars for a building that isn’t even located within our borders at this time of economic uncertainty and at a time when we don’t have enough revenue to operate county government effectively,” he said. “We have numerous projects that deserve priority in our own county, such as a convention center hotel, and other projects that will enhance our community and create jobs for our citizens.”

“Perhaps the organization should focus more on winning [games] at home during the season instead of trying to pilfer tax dollars from our local government,” LaMarca said.

The Dolphins ended their regular 2010 season with seven wins and nine losses, and no wins at home.

The bed-tax bill will allow local governments to have a full hearing about how to use tourism dollars in the best interest of their respective communities, the team said in response to the Broward commission’s vote.

“We are disappointed in any action that cuts off the debate long before everyone has been able to weigh the merits of a specific proposal,” the team said. “Without a healthy debate, we are shortchanging the taxpayers and local businesses who, like us, are interested in creating jobs, sustaining tourism, and building a stronger local tax base.”

So far, the Dolphins have not made official public presentations about their proposal to Miami-Dade or Broward commissioners, though they have been conducting speaking engagements to organizations such as chambers of commerce in both counties.

Miami-Dade approved a 99-year lease of the stadium land to the team in July 1984.

County Mayor Carlos Alvarez has not commented on the improvements because no proposal has been submitted, said his spokeswoman, Vicki Mallette.

The team website devoted to the proposed improvements said the costs are estimates and that it is “prepared to make a significant investment, but we need to partner with the public sector to develop and implement an effective stadium-improvement plan.”

The team did not say how much it would contribute to the improvements, but it plans to privately finance a $60 million water park to be built adjacent to the stadium.

“We remain optimistic that once all of the facts are known about what is at stake and what the benefits are to the local community, that a dialogue will be welcomed and a more constructive and informed discussion can occur,” the team said.

Rodstrom said the Dolphins approached him “some time ago” about needing improvements to the stadium to remain competitive for future Super Bowls. He was not aware that the improvements included a “covered stadium” that could compete with BankAtlantic Center until last week, he said.

Broward commissioners concluded that “we’d be using our bed tax to support another facility in another county and foster competition against us,” he said.

Broward benefits from having the Super Bowl because of the stadium’s close proximity to the county line, but Rodstrom said South Florida most likely wouldn’t win the event more than once every four or five years and he has not heard how local hoteliers feel about raising the bed tax.

“I feel like we’ve been left in the dark about what [the Dolphins] want to do other than raise the bed tax,” Rodstrom said. “I would at least like to see what they are asking for and what they would give us in return. It would have to be something very good for the county and with a number of caveats to get my support.”



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