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Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to privately fund stadium upgrades, wants relief from property tax

The Miami Dolphins lost their chance to host the 50th Super Bowl during last year's owners meeting, in large part due to the state of Sun Life Stadium. With a public-private partnership for funding shot down by the state legislature, owner Stephen Ross now has announced he will fully fund the renovations privately - but he has a request.

Mike Ehrmann

The argument over spending millions of public dollars to fund a sports stadium's renovations swung back to the private side yesterday when Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross announced he would pay for the $350 million upgrade to Sun Life Stadium through private funds. After an ugly fight with the Florida state legislature, a fight that was played out through the media, and criticism from numerous sources about using public money, it appears that the proponents of not allowing tax dollars to be used for a stadium beat Ross.

There is a slight catch, however. Ross came out swinging with the new plan, pointing to every other professional sports stadium and franchise in Florida and asking that he, and the Dolphins, be treated fairly. Sun Life Stadium is privately owned, while every other stadium and arena is a public site. That means, the Dolphins are the only team in the state who pay annual property tax, which last year was $3.8 million, and, according to reports last year, could start climbing toward $5 million a year.

And, that's what Ross wants to end. In a statement released through the team, Ross said:

I have made clear I want the stadium modernized because it’s right for our fans and it’s right for Miami-Dade and South Florida. I have decided the best way to get this done is to pay for the project with private funds. All we ask in return is that we are treated the same as all franchises in the state of Florida. A world-class city needs a world-class stadium.

We haven’t won a Super Bowl bid in Miami-Dade in far too long, and we know that with the stadium as an issue, we never will unless it is modernized. The Super Bowl Committee will have to decide if they want to compete for the next two Super Bowls so time is of the essence. It is time to move forward.

This privately funded project will create more than 4,000 local jobs. We can bring back the Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff Championship and world-class soccer matches -- and all the revenue those big events generate for the local community. I am going to make the commitment and provide the resources because Miami deserves the economic benefits of a modernized stadium.

But for me, this is about something more. I grew up here in Miami-Dade and have been part of this area for most of my life. I want to do this for the community that has done so much for me, and for this storied franchise that means so much to the people of South Florida. With this project, we can secure the future of the Dolphins in Miami-Dade for another 20 years. That is more important to me than anything else.

Last year's public-private partnership plan included a one-percent rise in the hotel tax and a $3 million-per-year rebate on sales tax generate within Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins had pledged to fund aproximately 70-percent of the total cost, had pledged to repay Miami-Dade county between $110-120 million in 2043, would cover any cost overruns, and, if four Super Bowls, four College National Championship games, and 22 international soccer matches were not held in Sun Life Stadium by 2043, would add up to an additional $120 million in penalties.

The plan was expected to be put up for a public vote in Miami-Dade County, but the state legislature failed to advance the necessary supporting resolution to the floor of the State House of Representatives, ending any chance for public funding.

Under the new plan, the $350 million plan would all come out of Ross' pocket, but the state and local governments stand to lose money that is currently used to fund schools, libraries, and the Miami Gardens government. Sun Life Stadium is the city's largest tax payer.

I frankly don’t believe we’re going to get another Super Bowl if we don’t do something with the stadium,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the Miami Herald on Monday. “Quite frankly, it is a much better deal than what we were talking about last year.”

The NFL has said Sun Life Stadium needs several upgrades, including a cover over the seating area for the fans and updated, high-definition lighting. The league fears holding another Super Bowl in a pouring South Florida rain storm, disrupting fans who pay thousands of dollars per ticket. In 2007 (completing the 2006 season), the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears in the rain in Super Bowl XLI, held in Sun Life Stadium (then called Dolphin Stadium). The league moved Super Bowl XLIV to Sun Life Stadium in 2010 when a New York City stadium for the New York Jets was unable to be completed. That game marked the 10th South Florida Super Bowl, the most of any host area (tied with New Orleans), but also was the last game Miami was expected to receive unless the upgrades were made.

Miami was a finalist for Super Bowl L - the 50th anniversary game - awarded to Santa Clara last May. The bid was then immediately moved into a vote against Houston for Super Bowl LI, again losing.

Early in last year's negotiations for the public-private partnership funding, the Dolphins had offered to turn over control of Sun Life Stadium to the county. The idea was immediately rejected, however, as the propery tax was deemed more valuable. Now, it appears, the property tax will serve as the key to any renovations to the 27-year-old stadium.

How far the new plan advances, and if some deal can be reached to ensure a void is not left if the millions of dollars in property tax is moved from Miami-Dade County, will be closely watched over the next few weeks and months. Sun Life Stadium needs the upgrades, and Ross appears willing to work with the local government to find a way to make it a palatable plan for all involved; however, Ross did not get to be a billionaire and Dolphins owner by simply throwing around money, so there is going to have to be some sort of compromise reached.