By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The baseball world casts its eyes on Florida tonight, as Opening Day in America also means opening day for the Marlins’ bold, modern, retractable-roof stadium in Little Havana, near downtown Miami.

After pre-game hoopla including the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung by Jose Feliciano, the new-look Miami Marlins take their own home field for the first time — launching a season full of high expectations with a freshly stocked blue-chip lineup, and ending years of squatting uncomfortably in the serially renamed box built for the football Dolphins.

It will be 7:05 p.m.  A national TV audience will be watching. And 37,000-plus lucky patrons will open their throats and cheer a moment to celebrate in South Florida history.

With its sleek, white architecture, the stadium looks very Miami and comes stocked with HD video screens, air conditioning, a South Beach restaurant and artwork in the outfield.

The way it got built is very Miami, too.

Unlike some cities that have balked at pouring taxpayer money into new stadiums, Miami decided to let the public finance most of the cost, which exceeds $600 million. The Marlins — who pleaded poverty and threatened to move to San Antonio and Portland despite having socked away tens of millions of dollars — put up just $120 million. But they get to keep all the revenue, including naming rights, which have yet to be sold.

Miami-Dade County sold about $377 million in bonds and the city of Miami about $102 million worth to build the stadium and adjacent parking garages, according to The Bond Buyer — much of it to be paid back through hotel-tax revenues over the next 40 years.

Public resentment over the stadium financing package — coming in the middle of the recession in a city struggling to fund its schools — played a role in the recall last year of Mayor Carlos Alvarez by a 76 percent margin.

Now, the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into the possibility that the investors who bought the bonds were deceived. In December, the SEC opened what The Bond Buyer called a “sweeping investigation,” seeking “an expansive list of documents, video, and audio recordings relating to the financings, and dealings with Major League Baseball and the Marlins, including the ball club’s ability to contribute to the stadium financing.”

Critics are already asking what city residents are getting out of the ballpark, other than the loss of parking on nearby streets. This week, after some coaxing, the Marlins agreed to pay to refurbish four city-owned parking lots to make it up to the neighbors. This was better public relations than what team owner David Samson had displayed on March 30, when he said the affected Little Havana residents “would eventually get used to walking a few blocks to get home on game nights.”

Miami Times columnist Michael Lewis this week compiled a list of ways the public has gotten the short end of the stadium deal — a promised baseball academy for local teens that hasn’t materialized; an entertainment zone that hasn’t been created and retail spaces that are empty; parking that’s scant and expensive; higher ticket prices.
“Bottom line: the public gets zero from its spending, and baseball in Miami is altered from the National Pastime to a retreat for the well-to-do.”

It will be interesting to see if the public ends up feeling as Lewis does, or winds up embracing this instant Florida landmark.

Meantime …

Play ball!