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Written by Jack King, BT Contributor   
January 2017

Pix_JackKing_1-17Our public projects often need public bailouts

Our public projects often need public bailouts

IPix_JackKing_1-17f you look around Miami-Dade, you will see quite a few government projects that supposedly benefit us citizenry. Sometimes they have a good value, and other times they seem to be the pet projects of wealthy individuals who want to get their names on buildings right in the middle of town.

As I said, we have quite a few of these, and some are very expensive. I will just look at three examples here -- otherwise this column would run to 10,000 words.

Starting with the most expensive, we have the Frost Science Museum in downtown Miami. The concept was magnificent…and then it started coming out of the ground. The cost overruns were rampart due in no small part to a unique design that was, to say the least, unbelievably technical and nearly impossible to build.

The next thing you knew, nobody could say just how much the place would actually cost to build, and on top of that, the public donations that were to pay for it were running behind. So the county, which had pledged $160 million for the first 20 years for the museum’s operation, had to put those operating dollars toward paying for construction costs instead.

So how is the museum going to operate? And who is going to pay for the numerous lawsuits filed by the subcontractors?

I probably should inform you that a lot of these numbers are, to say the least, vague and probably not correct. This seems to be the situation for all the City of Miami’s and county’s projects. Take for instance, the cost of the science museum. I have found cost estimates of $250 million that ballooned to $325 million and were then revised to $305 million. I can’t tell you whether that includes the $160 million the county put in or not.

And it is not just this project. It is every public project.

Next on the list: the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Renovation of the Playhouse has been on the minds of the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County, and the State of Florida since the venue was shuttered years ago. Plan after plan has been floated, but no one has found a way to make it economically feasible. Recently, the county has promised some $30 million to renovate the building into a mixed-use operation anchored by a 700-seat theater.

Seems like a nice idea, so the county started negotiating with Gables Stage in the Biltmore Hotel. Right now, Gables Stage has a 150-seat theater and runs small events.

So the question becomes whether the Gables Stage group can fill up a 700-seat theater eight times a week? That isn’t an easy thing to do. There is the issue of the retail/restaurant area there too. Who would run it? What are the financial projections?

Right now the Miami Parking Authority wants to run it, but it doesn’t exactly have a great track record in managing retail. Check out the retail in the Marlins Park parking garage (hint: it’s been vacant for quite a few years).

One other issue: There are at least three major venues seating more than 700 that are with within two miles of the playhouse. Two are on the University of Miami campus, and the other is several hundred yards away at the Ransom Everglades School. That one seats more than a thousand. So this idea doesn’t make sense to me.

It doesn’t seem to make sense to the State of Florida, either. Somewhere over the past years, the state has gotten the title to the property and would like to have a say in its use.

The county says it has $30 million ready to go for the Playhouse. I’m pretty sure that it is just a drop in the bucket of what actual costs may be.

A few years ago, the city held a referendum to lease some waterfront property next to City Hall. It had taken the Groveites one hell of a fight to get an amendment into the charter stating that the lease or sale of waterfront public land had to go to a referendum.

Unfortunately, when the charter was amended, the change included all five districts in the vote. It worked well in the early days until the three Hispanic districts were sold a bill of goods about lower taxes, and they’ve been selling off our waterfront property ever since.

So now we’re stuck with a four-story building (read: shopping center) and a four-story parking garage with retail (compliments of the Miami Parking Authority). Or maybe not.

The bids came in for the waterfront complex, called The Harbour in Historic Coconut Grove, and all three of them were just about double the estimates. Seems like that garage is in a flood zone, and FEMA is touchy about that since Hurricane Andrew. Miami Parking Authority didn’t notice?

Or didn’t care.

 

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