Updated 6 yearss ago
More than two decades after civic leaders first proposed a world-class concert hall in downtown Miami, county commissioners have stamped their approval on a $255-million deal to build a performing arts complex that backers say will showcase Miami as the state's cultural capital.
The center will be home to five resident companies: The Miami City Ballet, the Florida Philharmonic, the Concert Association of Florida, the New World Symphony and the Florida Grand Opera. It will consist of two separate structures -- both designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Cesar Pelli -- straddling Biscayne Boulevard just north of the I-395 causeway connecting Miami to Miami Beach. Once completed, boosters promise, the complex will be as recognizable as Sydney's opera house or Bilbao, Spain's Guggenheim Museum. Groundbreaking is expected within six months, with completion in 2004.
Development officials believe the project will give a boost to the sagging fortunes of Miami's Omni business district, just north of the downtown center. Nearby property values already are on the rise. The long-struggling Omni International Mall has been reborn as a center for high-tech startups.
But the plan has not been without controversy. Officials haggled for years over where to build. They settled on land donated by Miami Herald parent Knight Ridder and by Sears, on the site of an abandoned store. Costs have skyrocketed. A year ago, the center's cost was pegged at $168 million. When bids came in last fall, however, the lowest topped $280 million. The hefty price tag prompted the city to consider a slew of options, including a proposal to split the complex into two, with one hall being built in Miami Beach at later date. Other arts patrons lobbied to scrap the plan entirely, divvying up all collected funds to cultural organizations countywide. Yet another plan called for phased construction over a number of years.
The complex was saved after County Manager Merrett Stierheim negotiated a lower price with the contractor. He also received pledges of at least $40 million from the private sector. The remaining funds will come from interest on bonds sold in the late 1990s and from the county's hotel bed tax.
Critics say the funding plan is dangerously dependent on the bed-tax revenues, which are highly variable from year to year. Furthermore, the same tax is being targeted by county backers of a plan to build a publicly financed stadium in downtown Miami for Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins. Stierheim's financing package also calls for a $24-million contingency fund, which some critics call woefully inadequate for a design as large and complicated as this one.
Civic leaders insist the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Other cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Toronto have helped revitalize their city centers while boosting tourism after committing to arts infrastructure. Meanwhile, nearby Broward and Palm Beach counties, whose performing arts venues are booked to near-capacity, are mounting campaigns to build additional concert halls. "Miami needs a boost, a shot in the arm," says Parker Thomson, a prominent Miami attorney and chairman of the Performing Arts Center Trust. "It's been a long wait, but this will put Miami back in the big leagues where it belongs."
Merrett Stierheim: Stepping Down
Catching many local officials by surprise, Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim has announced his resignation effective March 15. Stierheim first served as county manager from 1976 to 1985. He later served as head of the Women's Tennis Association and CEO of the Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. He was re-appointed county manager in 1998, ostensibly to help stabilize a county government beset by corruption and ethics probes. Some insiders believe Stierheim, 67, timed his departure to avoid debate over a proposed strong-mayor system in Miami-Dade, which would eliminate the county manager post.
In the News
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Former City of Miami finance director Manohar Surana, who helped send a city manager and a city commissioner to prison on corruption charges, has been indicted on charges stemming from the alleged 1995 kickback scheme. Federal prosecutors say Surana threatened to derail a city contract with computer contractor Unisys if the company refused to make secret payments to him and other city officials. City Commissioner Miller Dawkins and City Manager Cesar Odio were convicted on related charges after Surana agreed to help prosecutors. Following the scandal, auditors uncovered massive accounting irregularities in the city's finances, pushing Miami-Dade's largest municipality to the brink of bankruptcy. Only last December did the city's bonds return to investment-grade status.
Barry Diller's high-profile experiment in local television has come to an abrupt end with the sale of his Miami Beach-based WAMI-69 station to Univision Communications. Diller's USA Networks launched the station three years ago, promising to bring as much as 12 hours a day of locally produced programming that highlights the community. Diller wanted to reproduce the concept in other markets. Despite praise from some, the rough, irreverent station suffered from low ratings.
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