The Eerie Interior of Miami Marine Stadium

After 20 years of neglect, the waterfront venue has been completely transformed -- for the worse. One group wants to restore it to its former glory.
by , | December 9, 2011

Updated March 2012

Miami Marine Stadium – located on an island in Biscayne Bay – offers striking views of both the city and the water. If it were located anywhere else in the country, the city-owned building would likely be the proud centerpiece of a waterfront district. Instead, Miami leaders have essentially abandoned the structure and allowed it to deteriorate for 20 years.

The venue that once hosted musical acts like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and The Who, had performers belt out tunes from a stage that floated on the water. Today, it's in complete disrepair. The seats are broken. It's littered with weeds and broken beer bottles. And nearly every square inch is covered in graffiti.

That may change.

City leaders are in negotiations with Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, a non-profit dedicated to restoring the 6,500-seat venue to its former glory. Mayor Tomás Regalado has repeatedly emphasized his desire to save the stadium, and last year, he penned a piece in the Miami Herald emphasizing his commitment to renovating the landmark. But the plans come with a caveat: the city doesn't want to spend much money.

That’s fine with Donald Worth, co-founder of the non-profit, who recognizes that a time when localities nationwide are feeling pinched, it's difficult to ask for financial support. His pitch to the city: Give his organization a no-cost lease on the building, and in exchange, the non-profit will work on the fundraising the $30 million to restore the structure. The non-profit would also hire a operating company to manage the facility. “At a time when governments don’t have much money, groups like ours are going to have to find creative ways to get things done,” Worth says.

Tentatively, the city's plan is to first give Worth's organization short-term access to the building for about two years and see how successful it is at fundraising and securing sponsors. If it does well during that trial period, the city could grant the organization long-term access. "Right now, they have a very conceptual business plan," says Alice Bravo, assistant city manager. "We want to make sure if they embark on this plan, they'll be succesful."

Worth knows that some critics may suggest that his plan could be perceived as a giveaway to the operator. But he emphasizes that the building has been vacant for nearly two decades and was nearly demolished at one point. If someone was going to get rich off the stadium, he reasons, they would have made a pitch for the facility by now. He's already found some serious supporters for his plan. The Miami Herald has written numerous editorials backing the effort, and the county has already pledged $3 million towards the restoration.

The stadium first opened in 1963 as a venue for powerboat races that ran on a distinctive oval track carved out of the island to create something of a maritime Circus Maximus. It was also a popular venue for concerts. As patrons watched from the grandstand, boaters could moor their vessels together around a floating stage. But after Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, the stadium was closed permanently. The city said the facility had been so badly damaged by the storm that it needed to be razed.

The city’s insurance company disagreed, arguing that the damage wasn’t quite so extensive, and much of it was simply due to years of neglect. Worth and other advocates for the facility argue that the hurricane was just an excuse to get rid of a stadium that wasn’t paying for itself due to mismanagement. At the time, Worth says, the insurance company found that the stadium needed $2 million to $3 million in repairs due to the lack of investment during its nearly 30 years of operation. Because the city didn't make that investment after Andrew -- or in the nearly two decades since -- the restoration cost has increased nearly tenfold.

But attitudes about the stadium are changing. In 2008, the city designated the stadium a historic site, which prevented demolition, and the city’s new master plan for the island features the facility prominently. It got even more attention when, in 2009, it was listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 Most Endangered” places. The stadium recently generated buzz in the architecture community when it hosted a design competition to solicit concepts for a new stage (the old one sunk). It got more than 90 entries.

Worth, a Massachusetts native who didn’t move to Miami until after the stadium closed, beams as he talks about the potential for a performance venue that would be unlike anything else in the country. He views his organization's efforts as similar to those of grassroots group that helped launch New York's High Line, and he says a re-build stadium could generate just as much acclaim for Miami and the park has for New York

“There’s no downside for the city,” Worth says. “This thing has sat here for 18 years. All we’re saying is give us a shot.”

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