MIAMI (AP) _ Herman McQueen leans on his cane at a downtown intersection, squinting toward the waterfront property where the Miami Heat want to build an arena with taxpayer help.
``It’s a good idea,″ McQueen said. ``Instead of taking all the money out of Miami, put some back in. It would be good for tourism.″
McQueen is a homeless panhandler, a Heat fan and a voter. He knows how badly the desolate neighborhood needs a boost, and he plans to cast a ballot for the arena in a referendum next Tuesday.
The land in question, some of the most valuable public property in Florida, now sits vacant except for vagrants. The Heat propose a 70-acre development that would include a $165-million arena along Biscayne Bay.
If the project is rejected Nov. 5, Heat owner Micky Arison says he’ll sell his team or move it. But if voters approve the plan, a chagrined South Florida will find itself simultaneously building two new arenas with public money, because the NHL Florida Panthers move into a new home in suburban Fort Lauderdale in 1998.
Opponents of the project include new metropolitan Metro Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, and polls point to an Election Day defeat for Arison and coach Pat Riley.
Arison’s threat to sell or move angered arena opponents who portray the cruise industry magnate as just another greedy team owner trying to coerce the public into building him a new facility.
``If Mr. Arison wants to go to Nashville, we can get another team,″ civic activist Dan Paul said, ``and this time one that won’t be able to blackmail us.″
Opponents cite these objections:
_ The Heat’s current home, Miami Arena, is only 8 years old and six blocks away, with $38 million left on its mortgage;
_ The Heat could play in the Panthers’ new $185 million arena. It will be built 30 miles northwest of downtown Miami, with groundbreaking scheduled for Nov. 15;
_ A new arena would be a shoreline eyesore and a misuse of land designated as a park;
_ Arison, one of the nation’s richest men, has the resources to build an arena himself. But he has agreed to contribute only $50 million, with hotel tax revenue covering most of the rest in a city already facing a $70 million budget deficit.
``It’s just plain wrong for taxpayers to foot the bill for hundreds of millions of dollars for a new arena when the average working family can’t even afford tickets to a game,″ Mayor Penelas said.
The Heat counter with these arguments:
_ The plan involves no new taxes, and the public money involved has been earmarked for sports facilities and convention centers, which by law prevents it from being used to improve schools or fight crime;
_ The 21,000-seat arena would draw people to the waterfront and enhance the skyline with a contemporary design;
_ The 15,200-seat Miami Arena was obsolete before it opened, and the team needs a home with more sky boxes and seats to pay rising NBA salaries;
_ Panthers owner H. Wayne Huizenga blocked the Heat from reaching a reasonable lease agreement in Broward County.
``I really do not view Broward as an option,″ Arison said.
Arison’s feud with Huizenga prevented the Heat and Panthers from cooperating to build one arena in Broward or Dade County. Instead, the teams played the counties against each other, and Huizenga sided with Broward.
Heat coach Pat Riley made no secret that he preferred to keep the team in Miami.
``I didn’t come here to coach in Broward,″ Riley said last season.
When Miami officials hastily approved the Heat plan, there was an immediate public backlash, and Paul obtained 48,672 petition signatures in a successful drive to put the project on the ballot. The referendum would prohibit any development along the waterfront without voter approval.
``I believe the public doesn’t want to spend tax money for an arena for a billionaire,″ Paul said.
The Heat argue that they propose more than just an arena. The team says its plan would give Miami a waterfront to rival Chicago, San Francisco and Sydney.
The project would include a Port of Miami expansion, with two cruise-ship slips that would benefit Arison’s Carnival Cruise Lines. Also proposed are a harbor for small boats, a pier for customs and retail space, and more than 30 acres of green space with a winding walkway stretching nearly two miles along the bay.
The area is now surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain-link fence with a security guard at the entrance. Broken bottles litter the landscape while the bay shimmers in the distance.
``Our project would bring people to the water, which right now is impossible,″ Heat political consultant Steve Watson said.