Thursday, May 9, 2013

Black Community Reacts to Collapse of Dolphin Deal

'It's Us We Need to Work On' - Black Community Reacts to Collapse of Dolphin Deal
Story & photographs by José E. Pérez

The eagerly-anticipated referendum for Miami-Dade County voters that would have helped decide the future of a deal between the county and South Florida Stadium LLC to upgrade Sunlife Stadium was derailed in stunning fashion as a key provision that required legislative approval in the State House of Representatives never reached the floor for a vote last week in Tallahassee.  When that vote was not taken, it immediately nullified the special yes-no referendum that was already put before Dade voters via early voting leading up to the special election scheduled for May 14. 

As the 2013 lawmaking session was winding down last Friday, a House vote to approve a proposed 1% increase on hotel bed taxes in mainland Miami-Dade County which was to be the primary source of public dollars for a massive stadium renovation never materialised prompting some, including Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, to place blame solely on the shoulders of Wil Weatherford, Speaker of the State House and rising star in Florida’s Republican party.

For now, the plans to begin construction on modernizing the autumn home of both the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins and the NCAA’s University of Miami Hurricane football teams have been stopped.  In a brief communiqué released shortly after the news broke from the State Capitol, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez stated rather matter-of-factly, that “the State Legislature did not take action on the bill to provide an additional 1% mainland tourist tax for the Dolphins’ stadium renovations.   As a result, and in accordance with the resolution calling the special election, I have instructed our Elections Department to cancel the special election effective immediately.”

In a written statement, Ross said that he was “deeply disappointed by the Speaker's decision.”

“He put politics before the people and the 4,000 jobs this project would have created for Miami-Dade and that is just wrong.”

Attorney H. T. Smith who, in his role with the Friends of Miami First, a political action committee created just two months ago, has been among the more visible supporters of the stadium improvement plan, also felt blindsided by the no-vote in the State House.  “

We were surprised,” said Smith, “because the Speaker had given his word” that the measure was going to be voted on in the House.

Smith and Ross were not alone in feeling shocked.   “My initial reaction was disbelief,” said Christine King, Executive Director of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation (MLKEDCO) which had been increasingly vocal of late in its insistence that South Florida Stadium LLC and the Miami Dolphins do more to strengthen the deal with the county before the now-cancelled referendum.   “I was surprised that there was no debate.”

According to Smith, the outcome of a House vote was not really in question.  “We counted the votes, we had enough,” commented Smith who said that proponents of the modernization project had obtained pledges from at least 84 State Representatives who had “committed to support” the plan.    Whether or not the legislators that had committed their support were going to follow through became moot when Weatherford did not bring the measure to the floor for a vote – a move that Ross and Smith said was contrary to what the Speaker had promised himself.  “He gave me and many others his word that this legislation would go to the floor of the House for a vote,” said Ross, “where I know, and he knows, we had the votes to win by a margin as large as we did in the Senate.”  Smith observed that “politics are one thing, keeping your word is another.”

As the Dolphins and Miami-Dade County move forward, the question has become “What now?”  Depending on who one speaks to, that question will differ.

For example, County officials now find themselves with a sudden windfall of over $1million left over from the non-refundable $4.7million check paid by the Dolphins to Miami-Dade to pay for special election necessary to put the latest stadium deal before voters.  According to the Mayor’s Office, that money “can be used to meet other County needs.”

For South Florida Stadium, the Miami Dolphins, Miami First, and the South Florida Super Bowl host committee, the immediate concern is the question to have the NFL’s biggest game come back to town.   “At this point, the Dolphins will try to salvage the Super Bowl bid,” said Smith.   That bid is due this week to the NFL.

Former Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson is optimistic about the future.  “I don’t see that it is all doom and gloom,” she said.   “I still believe that there will be renovations to that stadium.”

Smith disagreed – sort of.   “The Dolphins are pretty firm that there will be no renovation without a public-private partnership.”   He explained that, in the eyes of Ross, “the community benefits” from having a more modern stadium and the high profile sports events that come with such a venue so they should help make it happen.    Supporters of the stadium upgrades have consistently touted the upsurge in thousands of jobs to be created by an improved Sunlife Stadium.   Ironically, about a year before the Dolphins went public with plans to refurbish their home stadium in January 2013, Ross said that “the jobs aren't going to be created by the government,” during an interview on CNBC on the eve of the Republican Party’s Florida primary.  When asked during that interview if “getting government out of the way” would benefit the economy, Ross replied in the affirmative. “Exactly.”

In spite of the blow to the stadium plans, Smith and King both see signs of encouragement.  The first, Smith said, is that there is now “a template for future business plans to use” when looking at large scale private-public projects.  The second positive is that “at least now we have dialogue,” said King.

For Betty T. Ferguson, those positive developments fall short in terms of long-term comprehensive community benefits.  “We need to do a better job of coming together,” said the former Miami-Dade County Commissioner who called for the community to work together to “create a master plan based on what we have put together.”

“It’s us that we need to work on,” said Ferguson who battled then-Dolphins owner Joe Robbie when he moved forward to build what is now Sunlife Stadium in her neighborhood in the 1980’s.   “We already ought to know.”   Not doing so, she cautioned, will continue to leave Miami-Dade’s black community vulnerable to the whims and machinations of better organized outside forces.  “When it comes to real decision-making, we’re not there.”