Prospect of jobs scores big for Blockbuster in Fla.

May 31, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

MIRAMAR, Fla. -- When Vicki Coceano heard what millionaire video and sports mogul H. Wayne Huizenga had in mind for 2,500-acres of marshy land, the 70-year-old mayor of this South Florida town just northwest of Miami thought, "Gee . . . this is marvelous."

Any government official would gush over the prospect of a $1 billion sports and entertainment complex with 20,000 jobs and a dizzying array of attractions: a hockey arena for Mr. Huizenga's Florida Panthers, a 45,000-seat baseball stadium with a retractable roof for his Marlins, a "virtual reality" village, a 36-hole public golf course, community parks, a roller rink, hotels and resorts, studio facilities for motion pictures, television and music.

But to build Blockbuster Park, Mr. Huizenga needed a district he could call his own. And he got it -- Florida officials created, in the words of one Wall Street analyst, a modern-day version of the Greek city-state, "a feudal empire within a state."

The state legislature approved a special district last month for the park parcel and endowed it with powers usually reserved for government -- the ability to borrow money, sell tax-exempt bonds, even increase the Florida sales tax of 6 cents on the dollar by a penny in the district.

This is a new twist in an increasingly competitive game -- trying to snare big business in the push for job-producing, economy-boosting ventures. Governors and economic development chiefs offer road money, tax breaks, job-training and other incentives. The bidding between states became so intense that the National Governors' Association last summer adopted a policy encouraging competition based on "quality public services," not just handouts.

Still, states are vying for football teams and sports complexes, Mercedes-Benz plants, high-tech industry and, more recently, gambling casinos and theme parks.

"If you take a look at what various localities want to encourage in terms of building a tax base, we have started to see, over the past three to four years, a boom in location-based entertainment, taxable-based entertainment," said Keith Benjamin, a stock analyst with Robertson Stephens & Co. Inc. in San Francisco.

And while gambling casinos and riverboats may be the best example, said Mr. Benjamin, "the Blockbuster sports complex is just part and parcel of a pretty significant countrywide trend": The refurbishment of the Six Flags theme parks across the country by Time-Warner Inc. The purchase of theme parks in Cincinnati, Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C., by Paramount Communications Inc. The growth of Fiesta Texas theme park in San Antonio.

"Wherever you look around the states, you see the demand developing for regional theme parks that are very close to people's homes," said Christopher Dixon, an analyst for PaineWebber in New York. "So, Florida has a unique opportunity [with the Blockbuster project]. It functions as a destination resort like Orlando as well as drawing on the local populace from the Miami area. . . . From a public policy point of view, if you're looking to develop an area, why not do it with someone who has the demonstrated skills of Mr. Huizenga?"

Mr. Huizenga, owner of three sports franchises in Florida, built a megamillion-dollar fortune from a garbage-hauling firm. His financial interests range from Blockbuster Video and Spelling Entertainment to a drug testing firm and franchiser of indoor children's playgrounds.

But it's precisely because of Mr. Huizenga's wealth and success that some Floridians have criticized the district approved for the Blockbuster project's 2,500 acres, located between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

"Not since Disney World breezed into the state in the 1970s has the legislature rolled over and agreed to give such power to a private developer," associate editor Lucy Morgan wrote in the St. Petersburg Times.

Final hurdles

The bill authorizing the district is awaiting Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr.'s signature. Before the project can proceed, the city of Miramar and Broward and Dade counties must pass similar legislation, authorizing a special district in their locales. The project also must win approval of a host of federal, state and local permits to begin construction.

Nicknamed "Wayne's World," the park evolved from a plan to build a 20,000-seat arena for the Florida Panthers hockey team. The Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., the spinoff from Mr. Huizenga's video conglomerate that will develop the complex, has amassed 1,800 acres of the 2,500-acre site at a cost of $35 million, a spokeswoman said.

"We would like to be able to attract some of the 17 million tourists that come through South Florida every year and [get them] to stay an extra night . . . because there is a destination here where they can spend an extra day, maybe spend the night and watch a baseball game and then go on to their cruise," said Tony Romero, vice president of communications and marketing for Blockbuster.

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