Billionaires Feud Over Cash to Fix Dolphins Field: Taxes

Billionaires Norman Braman and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross are battling over whether state taxpayers should pay almost half the cost of a $400 million plan to fix up the football team’s home field.

Braman, a former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, says Ross alone should pay for improvements, including a roof for the open-air Sun Life Stadium’s grandstands. His campaign against the plan has prompted supporters, led by Ross, a real estate developer and the Related Cos. founder, to accuse him of “flooding the airwaves with misinformation.”

It’s deja vu for Braman, a car dealer and art patron who unsuccessfully opposed Miami-Dade County’s $347.5 million subsidy for the new home of Major League Baseball’s Marlins, which opened last April. After losing that battle, Braman helped oust the county’s mayor in a 2011 recall election spurred by a property-tax increase.

“This is welfare for a multibillionaire,” Braman, 80, said in an interview in his Miami office. Ross and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell are playing a “nefarious game,” he said.

Ross, 72, would pay at least $201 million of the cost. He says the upgrades would help attract more NFL Super Bowls, college championships and soccer tournaments to the city.

‘Populist’ Position

“We have a shot at a 50th anniversary Super Bowl game, we’ve got an owner who is willing to put up a couple hundred million dollars,” Mike Dee, the Dolphins chief executive officer, said by telephone. “The argument that Steve Ross is wealthy and that he should just pay for it all himself is not an intellectual argument, it’s a populist argument.”

Using tax dollars to help pay for NFL fields has prompted heated debate in dozens of cities from coast to coast since 1990, with the public footing at least some of the bill for all except one. Among recent examples, lawmakers haggled over a new Minneapolis home for the Minnesota Vikings and wound up committing almost $737 million to the project, only slightly less than the team’s $754 million share.

Under a proposal backed by Ross and Dee, a $3 million annual distribution of sales-tax receipts for 30 years would help pay for the renovation, along with revenue from an increase in a local hotel tax to 7 percent from 6 percent. Ross said the work would keep the Dolphins in Miami for the next 25 years.

Ross bought the team and its stadium in 2009 for about $1.1 billion from Wayne Huizenga, the Waste Management Inc. founder.

Community Role

“I recognize that when you own a sports team, it’s a responsibility to the community,” Ross said in a Jan. 14 news briefing about the renovation plan.

Braman said Ross should “go to Wayne Huizenga and ask for a refund” if he feels he paid too much for the Dolphins, who haven’t had a winning season since 2008.

MiamiFirst, a Dolphins-backed group that promotes the financing deal, said on its page that Braman “stuck it to Philly citizens” when he owned the NFL’s Eagles, which he sold in 1995. The group’s website links to a video calling Braman a “villain” who mismanaged the Philadelphia team by trading away key players.

MiamiFirst also took out two full-page advertisements in local newspapers. In one, the group said Braman benefited from taxpayer-funded luxury boxes in Philadelphia and that he sought public aid for a new Eagles stadium in 1993.

“You are entitled to your own opinion, Mr. Braman, but not your own facts,” the ad said.

No ‘Handout’

Braman said the luxury-box improvements in Philadelphia were negotiated before he bought the team and were included in the price he paid for it. The financing “wasn’t a handout” because as much as 70 percent of revenue from the seats went to the city, helping it profit from the investment, he said.

Florida has spent about $251 million on professional sports-franchise facilities statewide since 1994, according to a legislative analysis. That includes almost $39.2 million for the Dolphins’ home field since 1994, to pay for a renovation that allowed the Marlins to play there.

This week, the Dolphins and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez backed a public referendum on the stadium proposal, though Gimenez said Feb. 11 that he wouldn’t call for a vote until he’s satisfied with the finance plan.

“There’s got to be a lot more negotiating before it becomes a good deal for taxpayers,” Gimenez said in an interview.

Dedicated Foe

Braman said he will “absolutely” finance opposition to the stadium plan if a referendum is held, adding that he spent “well over a million dollars” during the debate over the Marlins ballpark and subsequent mayoral recall campaign.

“Somebody has to stand up to this stuff,” Braman said. “The problem is that nobody has the financial ability and desire to fight it. Nobody likes these things but no one stands up to it.”

The proposal from Ross and Dee would add a canopy roof over seating areas, new video screens and wider seats for the 25-year-old field. The work would generate 4,000 South Florida jobs, according to MiamiFirst, and would be done in time for the 2015 football season.

Miami hosted the 2007 Super Bowl, a game that was played in the rain. In 2009, Goodell said the city needed a “state-of-the-art” stadium to compete for future championships. When the 2010 Super Bowl took place in the city, weather wasn’t an issue.

Bowl Shot

The city “can’t have an aging facility that falls below the minimum standard required to host these events,” Dee said. “If we’re unsuccessful, we can’t afford to do this on our own and won’t do it on our own.”

Ross and the Dolphins say a decision on the financing plan should come before May, when the NFL will decide where to hold the 2016 Super Bowl, the 50th.

“I feel confident that if we can get this done, that Super Bowl 50 will be here,” Ross told reporters last month. Local hoteliers such as Donald Trump and Jonathan Tisch, co-owner of the NFL’s New York Giants, publicly support his plan. Dee stressed the positive impact of the renovation, calling it “an enormous benefit to the community.”

College football’s Orange Bowl and Bowl Championship Series title games this year added more than $400 million to the local economy, Tony Argiz and Jeff Bartel, two leaders of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, said in a Jan. 31 opinion article in the Miami Herald. A Super Bowl probably brings $30 million to $40 million to a community, according to Robert Baade, who teaches economics at Lake Forest College in Illinois and documented the frequency of taxpayer support for NFL fields.

Legislative Action

Any plan to provide public money for the stadium must be passed by the Legislature. On Feb. 5, the state Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee unanimously backed a sales-tax rebate to help finance the upgrades, as well as the room-tax increase. The measure hasn’t come before the Florida House of Representatives.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, said funding requests may be considered that include the Daytona International Speedway, EverBank Field, home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Sun Life plan.

“I don’t think we can deal with any of these issues individually,” Weatherford told reporters in the capital Jan. 30. “We have breathing room in our budget, so we’re going to have to determine what our priorities are.”

Republican Governor Rick Scott hasn’t said whether he supports using tax money for the Miami project.

“I hope the Dolphins do really well,” Scott said on Feb. 5, when asked about the stadium plan. “They need to have a winning season.”

Stadium upgrades for the Dolphins would mostly benefit Ross, not taxpayers, Braman said.

“If he brings more events there, he’s going to make a lot of money,” said Braman, who says he has known Ross for 35 years. “Let him make an investment in his own business.”

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