Dolphins look to split bill for stadium upgrade

Dolphins look to split bill for stadium upgrade

Published Jan. 14, 2013 5:53 p.m. ET

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The topic strikes a nerve in many communities, especially during tough economic times: use of public funds to build or renovate a major sports facility.

Nowhere is the issue more heated than in South Florida.

Public funds paid for nearly 75 percent of the construction costs for the Miami Marlins baseball stadium on the former Orange Bowl site. Whether you think that was a smart deal, what’s done is done.

Not so with Sun Life Stadium.

During an afternoon news conference Monday, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and chief executive officer Mike Dee announced plans for a $375 million-$400 million comprehensive modernization of the stadium that opened in 1987. The proposed upgrade would be finished in time for the 2015 NFL regular season, with hopes of hosting Super Bowl L.

More so than Marlins Park, which rarely benefits from a large influx of out-of-town fans, Sun Life Stadium would aid South Florida businesses (e.g. hotels, restaurants) due to its size and proximity.

Events such as Super Bowls, BCS championship games, bowl games, etc., usually draw fans who spend a minimum of several days in South Florida. There also are plans to host more international soccer and perhaps the Pan American Games.

“This has got to be a situation where everybody wins, and we’re prepared to sit down and work that out,” said Ross, who vowed to pay a majority of the costs. “I think this a situation where that can happen.”

Miami currently is in a fight with San Francisco/Santa Clara to host the Super Bowl’s 50th anniversary in early 2016. That game will be awarded at the NFL owners’ meeting in May.

“When Commissioner (Roger) Goodell said Miami needs to do some work on its stadium to get another Super Bowl, my mind as a real estate developer went to work,” Ross said. “How can we make this a better place, how can we attract great events, how can Miami be looked at as a world class city? And this all turns into creating jobs.”

The league likely will want an official commitment to a Sun Life Stadium upgrade before awarding Super Bowl L or LI to Miami. Houston and the Super Bowl L runner-up city will contend for the 2017 game, also to be awarded in this spring.

The Dolphins would give way to the NFL to operate Super Bowl L, with the economic impact on South Florida potentially in the area of $500 million.  

With little more than four months remaining before the owners meeting, Ross said a public vote on public funding was unrealistic.

Ross, who also owns Sun Life Stadium, pledged to pay for a majority of the upgrade cost, plus overruns. If that’s 51 percent, that still leaves 49 percent for the public.

“I promise that we will keep that franchise here in Miami, playing in this stadium, for the next 25 years,” Ross said.

Asked later if lack of an upgrade could mean moving or selling the team, both Ross and Dee clarified.

“We didn’t say that,” Ross said.

Upgrades would include seats closer to the field, wider seats, concourse enhancements, huge HD video screens and an open-air canopy to protect fans from the elements.

Dee said a bill will be filed with the Florida Legislature seeking $3 million a year sales tax rebate from the state on goods and services generated at the stadium.

A companion bill will seek to give the Miami-Dade County Commission the power to raise the tourist bed tax — paid by tourists for hotel-spent nights — in Miami from 6 to 7 cents. That would enable the Sun Life Stadium project to tap into the sports franchise tax, which already has been authorized and used on other facilities such as the AmericanAirlines Arena.

Dee said the team was open to “any and all ideas” and “nothing’s off the table” in trying to come to an agreement with Miami-Dade County.

That won’t appease people completely against public funds for athletic facilities. There also are people who can’t understand why leagues annually earning billions of dollars would seek financial help when building facilities.

But asking a community to invest in a fair deal for both sides can make sense. Such a deal would include timely repayment of any public loans, or perhaps the county assuming part ownership of the stadium.

People who think the NFL is bluffing and that Miami always will be in the Super Bowl rotation should think again.

“There was a period of time, back in the 1980s, where the Orange Bowl passed that point of repair and before this facility opened, where we lost Super Bowls for a 10-year period,” Dee said. “San Diego, another great destination, the NFL loved going there, now out of the Super Bowl mix because they have a stadium that can’t compete.

“The time to invest is now to make sure that we don’t lose 10 years.”