Billionaires feud over money for Miami Dolphins stadium

Bloomberg NewsFebruary 16, 2013 

MIAMI -- 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.

"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.

"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 Facebook.com 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.

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.

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."

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