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    Stadium scuffle ensnares Miami

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


    MIAMI -- The Florida Marlins are looking for a new place to play baseball.

    That is the safest way to put it.

    Call it a "stadium," and there are people here who will correct you. "We like to call it a ballpark," says Jonathan Jensen, a Marlins spokesman, advancing the team's vision of a $385-million baseball palace with a retractable roof set picturesquely on the last piece of waterfront parkland in downtown Miami -- a "park within a park."

    But use these words in front of the wrong people, and you are accused of being duped.

    "This is a baseball stadium," huffs Irene Secada, a political consultant who is active with Miami's Urban Environmental League. The group says the Marlins project would block an important vista to Biscayne Bay and use up culturally valuable green space on a tract known as Bicentennial Park.

    "The Marlins are trying to sell us their language so they can sell an idea to the public," Secada complains. "How foolish do they think we are?"

    The proposed facility is the latest and most expensive manifestation of the big-league sports boom that first hit Florida in the late 1980s and still reverberates today. Since 1987, when the state was home to only two major professional teams -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins -- seven new franchises have started play across Florida, drawn by a parallel influx of potential fans. The state gained a total of about 6-million residents in the 1990 and 2000 census counts, an increase that equals Florida's entire population when the Dolphins started in 1965.

    Nine arenas and stadiums have been built and/or renovated since 1987 at a cost of more than $1.3-billion, most of it public money.

    To appreciate how rapidly the Florida market has changed in that time, consider Miami Arena, built in 1988 but already obsolete. Its main tenants, the Miami Heat basketball team and the Florida Panthers hockey team, have moved on to bigger arenas of their own.

    Times also have passed 14-year-old Pro Player Stadium, the Marlins home field, which, contrary to predictions, has been a money-loser for the team, largely because of frequent rains.

    This is why South Florida is in the teeth of yet another debate over whether the public should help finance a major sports facility, a situation familiar to almost any U.S. city with a big league team.

    Tampa Bay has weathered three such debates in the past 15 years with Tropicana Field, the Ice Palace and Raymond James Stadium. They are painful, long-running affairs that pressure communities to weigh pride against pragmatism.

    Most all of them feature the predictable showdown, which in Miami pits John Henry, the Marlins owner, against people such as City Commissioner Johnny L. Winton, a Marlins season ticket holder who says the "park within a park" idea is bad public policy.

    "I think John Henry's going to run like a mad dog trying to scare people into thinking the Marlins are leaving town," Winton says. "Then there's going to the great stand-off. And he who blinks loses."

    Winton, whose district stretches the length of Miami's waterfront, believes that he has the votes to keep the Marlins out of Bicentennial Park. He favors another site along the Miami River.

    But if the publicly financed sporting venues that now dot Florida are any indication, it is Henry who may get his way in the end.

    A farmer's son and college dropout who made his millions as a commodities trader, Henry started by easing the bitterness caused by H. Wayne Huizenga, the Marlins initial owner. It was Huizenga who gutted the 1997 World Series championship team, trading away its talent and slashing the payroll to a paltry $13-million.

    With the once-mighty Marlins consigned to years of futility, attendance plummeted, falling to 1.2-million last year -- lower than even the Devil Rays.

    Since purchasing the Marlins in 1999 for $150-million, Henry has assured fans that he is working to revive the team but insists that he needs the revenues from a new "ballpark" to do it.

    The simple fact that he is not Huizenga is a start for many fans, who thank the new owner wherever he goes. Henry, 51, is a musician and a student of Eastern philosophy who mingles with fans and speaks about baseball with a romance and zest that the business-minded Huizenga never mustered.

    In one moment captured by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the soft-spoken Henry ascends from a dugout during spring training and marvels: "I love walking on a grass field. Isn't it cool?"

    More notably, he has promised to return 90 percent of any profits to the community once the facility is built.

    Last spring, Henry proposed to finance his new "ballpark" with a tax on cruise passengers, only to have it rejected by Gov. Jeb Bush on Opening Day. Then on Dec. 17, after weeks of negotiation with city and county officials, Henry agreed to a tentative deal that would keep the Marlins in downtown Miami for 40 years.

    The team has set a Thursday deadline for local officials to approve the deal, but as of Friday, the site and other key issues had not been fully addressed.

    The deal calls for using $266-million in local tax revenue. Fans would contribute another $47-million from a 4-percent ticket surcharge, and the team would kick in $72-million in rent payments, plus change its name to the Miami Marlins.

    But many officials question the cost and the park site, which is owned by the city. Some favor the alternate site along the Miami River, away from the waterfront, but the Marlins say it would add to the cost and delay the opening past 2004.

    Meanwhile, Winton, the Miami city commissioner, chairs a committee that has long been exploring more passive uses for Bicentennial Park. The panel presses ahead as if the Marlins plan did not exist.

    Another hurdle is the Legislature, which would have to approve the sales tax portion of the plan.

    It wasn't supposed to come to this.

    When Huizenga persuaded Major League Baseball in 1991 to place an expansion franchise in South Florida, shoving Tampa Bay's bid aside, he insisted Pro Player Stadium was fine for baseball.

    Though built for Dolphins football, Huizenga argued it was designed for baseball as well, also downplaying concerns that South Florida's late afternoon rains would keep fans away.

    He ended up acknowledging these problems when he proposed a domed Marlins stadium before the franchise would play its first game in 1993.

    As the new owner, Henry inherited a home field that was as flawed as his team.

    Forget that Pro Player's 70,000-seat bowl is an awkward fit for baseball, which is better suited to intimate settings. Henry's lease gives the Marlins no revenue from suites and box seats, and only limited revenue from concessions, parking and signage. And the rains continue to keep people away in droves.

    "Rain for us is a serious issue, and it's not only rain but the threat of rain," said Julio Rebull Jr., a Marlins vice president.

    Henry quickly concluded that his team needed its own "ballpark" with a retractable roof and revenue streams that could boost payroll and make it more competitive. Seven months after buying the Marlins, he began studying sites in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, finally choosing Bicentennial Park.

    In addition to 60 suites, the 40,000-seat facility would have air-conditioning, a natural grass surface, an entertaining design with better sight lines and wider seats set closer to the field. The project would cover about half the park's 30 acres.

    During a recent nighttime visit to the site, Miami's skyscrapers rise impressively to the south. American Airlines Arena, built last year for the Miami Heat, gleams in the foreground. Colored bridge lights reflect on Biscayne Bay to the east.

    Someday, network cameras would no doubt pan to the gleaming cityscape outside. It is a chamber of commerce moment, until one notices the scruffiness of the park, the faint scent of human waste and the homeless people arriving at dusk.

    The park, which opened in 1976, is in serious decline after serving many uses over the years.

    "We have a vision that brings it back to life," said Rebull, the Marlins vice president. "We think the more we have a chance to outline our vision, the more people will like what they hear and what they see."

    But Secada, the political consultant, has seen enough.

    She remembers her mother taking the family to the water's edge in downtown, where she saw wild dolphins for the first time. The park, she insists, has promise.

    "If a stadium goes there, what access will we really ever have to that water?" she asked.

    "The Marlins want everything."

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

    Florida's stadium boom

    Miami Arena

    Opened: 1988 in downtown Miami.

    Cost: $52.5-million.

    Big league tenants: None now.

    * * *

    Pro Player Stadium

    Opened: 1987 in suburban Miami.

    Cost: $115-million, plus $10-million renovation for baseball.

    Big league tenants: Miami Dolphins, football; Florida Marlins, baseball.

    * * *

    American Airlines Arena

    Opened: 1999 in downtown Miami.

    Cost: $175-million.

    Big league tenant: Miami Heat, basketball

    * * *

    Ice Palace

    Opened: 1996 in downtown Tampa

    Cost: $153-million.

    Big league tenant: Tampa Bay Lightning, hockey.

    * * *

    Raymond James Stadium

    Opened: 1998 in Tampa.

    Cost: $168.5-million.

    Big league tenant: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, football.

    * * *

    Tropicana Field

    Opened: 1990 in downtown St. Petersburg.

    Cost: $138-million, plus $70-million renovation for baseball.

    Big league tenant: Tampa Bay Devil Rays, baseball.

    * * *

    Alltel Stadium

    Opened: 1995 in downtown Jacksonville.

    Cost: $121-million.

    Big league tenant: Jacksonville Jaguars, football.

    * * *

    TD Waterhouse Centre

    Opened: 1989 in downtown Orlando.

    Cost: $98-million.

    Big league tenant: Orlando Magic, basketball.

    * * *

    National Car Rental Center

    Opened: 1998 near Fort Lauderdale.

    Cost: $212-million.

    Big league tenant: Florida Panthers, hockey.

    Sources: Times files; Ballparks by Munsey & Suppes.

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