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Boon or boondoggle? Rays look to Marlin Park for how not to build new stadium

— Alongside the hodgepodge of old efficiencies, low-rise apartment blocks and mom-and-pop stores of Little Havana, Marlins Park is a jarring futuristic behemoth.

The steel, glass and concrete structure rises some 254 feet above street level. Atop the ballpark is a retractable roof — a sun-bleached, 8,000-ton steel lid that ensures a perfect 75 degrees inside on game day.

But this always-fair-weather ballpark has not yet won over Miami’s fair-weather fans.

The $634 million stadium was supposed to usher in a new era for the Miami Marlins. In claims similar to those made to justify a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark, Marlins officials predicted bigger crowds, more revenue and a more competitive team. The lure of a Major League Baseball ballpark would draw development into the low-income, mostly Hispanic neighborhood 2 miles west of downtown Miami.

But after a one-season burst of interest, crowds at Marlins games remain among the smallest in baseball, and the team continues to trade its best players and struggle on the field.

As the Tampa Bay Rays look to leave Tropicana Field, the Marlins’ experience serves as a warning that a new ballpark is no instant fix for a struggling franchise.

Including new parking garages, the cost to taxpayers for the Marlins’ plush new home ran to $508 million. Add in the cost of repaying high-interest construction bonds and that figure rises to a jaw-dropping $2.4 billion over 40 years, which led Forbes Magazine to dub it “baseball’s most expensive stadium disaster.”

The political fallout from the ballpark was equally spectacular, with court challenges, a recall election that sacked Miami-Dade’s mayor and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the financing.

“It was a really bad deal,” said Katy Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade county commissioner who voted in 2009 against funding the ballpark. “All the claims were overblown and didn’t amount to anything.”

Marlins officials maintain that it’s too early to judge the investment.

The ballpark opened at the tail end of the real estate crash when development in Miami ground to a halt, said Claude Delorme, Marlins executive vice president of operations and events. More fans will come when the team becomes more successful, he said.

“In 15 or 20 years, then we’ll be able to say was this a success or not,” Delorme said. “One year or two years or five is not a fair horizon to make that call.”

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On a recent warm Wednesday night, teenagers play soccer on a small strip of grass outside Marlins Park shouting for the ball in Spanish. On a field across the road, workers are building the stage for Beyonce’s upcoming Formation Tour concert. When complete, the stage was to be moved whole into the ballpark.

The Marlins are hosting the Washington Nationals, the third of a four-game stretch against the team. The game is far from the main attraction in town. Both the Miami Heat and the Florida Panthers have playoff games the same evening, siphoning away fans, attention and TV coverage from the Marlins.

Just shy of 17,000 people make the trip to the ballpark to watch the 3-1 loss. The ballpark’s upper tier, typically one of the most expensive parts of a ballpark, stood empty, as were thousands of seats in other sections.

It wasn’t that way when Marlins Park opened in 2012. The novelty of a shiny new ball park drew average crowds of 27,400 — 18th highest in baseball.

But midway through that season, the Marlins traded star shortstop Jose Reyes and several other regular starters, paring $146 million from their payroll. The team finished the season 69-93.

Fans who had bought into the new vision of the team viewed the trade with the Blue Jays as something of a betrayal. Average attendance the following season slumped to about 19,500, a mark that has only risen slightly ever since.

“We came in in our first years with very high aspirations both in terms of attendance and sponsorship and team performance,” Delorme said. “Time will tell down the line if (the trade) was successful or not. Certainly people were critical of that decision.”

Four years later, the ballpark still has a new feel, but it’s the product on the field that is the main beef of disgruntled fans. The team’s payroll remains among the lowest in baseball, casting doubt on whether it can win often enough to entice Miami’s notoriously fickle fans out to Marlins Park.

“This is a beautiful ballpark. That’s the only thing they did right,” said Rafael Vazquez, a Marlins fan who attends about 10 games per season. “They don’t maintain a team, which is why they will never get a fan base.”

Marlins owners settled on Little Havana after an exhaustive multi-year search to find a big enough parcel in downtown Miami.

Soccer superstar David Beckham recently encountered the same problem in his bid to find a stadium site for his Major League Soccer franchise. Beckham eventually gave up and now is pushing plans to build the stadium in Overtown, about a mile and a half northwest of downtown.

After talks with the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, the Marlins agreed to build their new ballpark on the site of the Orange Bowl. The decision meant there was no cost to buy land and some $50 million originally intended for Orange Bowl renovation was funneled instead into the ballpark.

The site had a proven history for sports events. Even without parking garages, the Orange Bowl would draw up to 70,000 for University of Miami Hurricanes games — with neighborhood residents charging fans to park in their yards.

Getting fans to make the trip to Little Havana 81 times a season for baseball is a different proposition.

The community is more than 90 percent Hispanic. Once mostly Cuban, it now also is home to many people with ties to more soccer-friendly countries like Nicaragua and Honduras. The average household income in the neighborhood is just $28,000, making an expensive day out at the local ballpark tough to afford.

It also lacks mass transit. With the nearest Metrorail station more than a mile away, the ballpark is built to accommodate road traffic with four parking garages and six parking lots providing roughly 5,600 parking spots.

That makes long lines for drivers exiting the stadium’s garages at the end of a game, but the parking is a necessary feature in a Miami market not inclined to use transit, Delorme said.

“I knew parking was critical to our season-ticket base, and for us to get our season-ticket base to levels we wanted, we had to have the ability to park them,” Delorme said.

Like the Rays, the Marlins struggle to sell season tickets to corporations and businesses who typically account for two-thirds of ticket sales for most Major League Baseball teams. Compensating for that is that Miami is home to a concentration of wealthy people, Delorme said.

Peter Martinez is the kind of fan the Marlins hoped to attract with a new ballpark. A former Miami Dolphins season ticket holder for 15 years, he now regularly attends Marlins games, proudly wearing a Marlins shirt with Christian Yelich’s name on the back.

He said he loves the ballpark, but on every trip he still imagines how much better a waterfront stadium would have been.

Asked what the Rays could learn from the Marlins, he laughs.

“Don’t have them build a beautiful stadium in the middle of nowhere.”

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In the four years since Marlins Park opened, little has changed in the surrounding neighborhood.

The stadium abuts small residential streets where tenants sit outside in their yards on game day holding “Parking $10” signs.

The neighborhood’s commercial thoroughfares, like Northwest Seventh Street, are still a mix of aging strip malls and empty lots.

The clearest signs of Marlins Park’s failure to spur development are the mostly empty city-owned retail spaces built into the foot of the parking garages.

One of the few businesses to open as a direct result of the stadium is the Batting Cage Sports Bar, two blocks away on Northwest Seventh.

The sports bar opened the same season as the ballpark, with owner Ysbel Medina investing $700,000 in the business, according to a Miami Herald report.

The idea was that fans would drink there before and after the game. But business has been so sluggish the bar morphs into a nightclub on weekends, said manager Mike Rubayo.

Thirty minutes before the start of a recent Marlins game, about a dozen customers were in the bar.

On game nights, Rubayo turns on the nightclub lights hoping they will attract fans leaving the stadium.

“Miami fans are the worst,” he said. “We just get the opposing fans because there is too much to do in Miami.”

Other than on opening day, it takes the presence of a baseball star like David Ortiz, the Dominican Republic-born Red Sox designated hitter, to add a few thousand to the gate, Rubayo said.

“They can’t fill that stadium. This is more of a soccer town.”

Two doors down, Manny Ramos is more of a believer.

In January, he opened the Crown Sports Barber Shop, fitting out a small retail unit with mirrors and barber chairs. On the walls are flat-screen TVs and posters of the Hurricanes and the Marlins’ World Series winning team.

Ramos doesn’t expect fans to get a haircut on game day, but, pointing to the stalled line of traffic outside his window, he said the influx of fans gives his business more exposure.

“They don’t come on game day, but they’ll come another day.”

By choosing the Orange Bowl site, Miami sacrificed the chance to offset stadium costs with surrounding development, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who is leading efforts to bring the Rays across Tampa Bay.

“They have parking garages and a neighborhood that surrounds the facility, which limits your opportunity for any type of development,” said Hagan, who visited Marlins Park about two years ago.

By contrast, the Rays’ blueprint for a new ballpark site says it must be suitable for an arrive-early, stay-late destination with scope for surrounding development of other entertainment for fans, such as dining and shopping.

Delorme remains optimistic that Marlins Park will be an anchor for future redevelopment of Little Havana as the economy in Miami continues to rebound and downtown development spreads westward.

It took decades for development around historic Wrigley Field in Chicago to become a reality, he said. Eventually, younger professionals were attracted to the area around the stadium, providing the impetus for bars and commercial spaces to spring up.

“Once downtown gets fully saturated, the next wave has to come toward here,” he said. “That will be the next time you really see real estate take off.”

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Even disgruntled Marlins fans agree: Marlins Park is a beautiful venue.

The ballpark signaled a shift away from the retro trend that began with Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

Instead, architect firm Populous produced a space-age like design in Miami that incorporates works of art to satisfy art dealer-owner Jeffrey Loria.

In addition to the retractable roof, the east side of the stadium has 60-foot-high glass panels that give fans a view of the Miami skyline and make the stadium feel less like an indoor venue when the roof is closed. The panels can be slid on runners to open the ballpark and let in fresh air and breezes when the weather is appropriate.

The mechanics required to open and close a roof were expensive. Coupled with an air-conditioning system big enough to cool 928,000 square feet, the cost ran to about $120 million.

The roof is only open for about 10 games a season, leading critics to describe is as an unnecessary luxury.

Crunching numbers during design showed that a fixed roof would only have saved about $20 million, said Delorme.

Even if the roof is mostly closed for games, it is opened other times to allow sunlight on the field. That is augmented with growing lights so the team can play on real grass

“Our owner wanted real grass so that was important,” he said.

With a capacity of 37,000, the stadium is small by Major League Baseball standards. The lower level seats are close to the field, creating an intimate atmosphere.

Above that, a 360-degree promenade is lined with concession stands and spots where fans can gather while watching the field.

To give the ballpark a South Beach flavor, there is an outpost of The Clevelander — a field-level bar with dancers, a DJ and a pool.

Distractions along the concourse include the Bobblehead Museum, about 600 bobblehead baseball figures in a vibrating display case.

Populous also designed the Rays spring training complex at Port Charlotte and is expected to take the lead on any new Rays stadium.

The Rays have indicated they want to move away from building a baseball-only center and envision a multi-purpose stadium instead. For example, a state-of the-art training center could double as a community wellness center, and the kitchens where game-day food is cooked for fans could be used as a culinary institution or training center.

Whatever the plan, the public share of the cost in the form of tax dollars is likely to generate controversy, as it did with Marlins Park.

Tax dollars paid for about 80 percent of the cost of the Miami stadium — a higher percentage than most recent ballparks, according to a study by John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University sports economist.

Hagan, the Hillsborough commissioner, said the Rays and elected leaders have learned from the Miami experience and taken steps to avoid a repeat.

That included the hiring of Foley Lardner, a law firm with ties to Major League Baseball that the county retained in October 2014 to advise on public-private partnerships.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn was included in the working committee of local business leaders to ensure the county and city are working cohesively, Hagan said.

“We’ve assembled the best possible team, and then we know that, as the Rays have indicated, they will have one opportunity to find the picture-perfect location.”

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@codonnellTBO

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Politics

Boon or boondoggle? Rays look to Marlin Park for how not to build new stadium