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Mogul Stirs Controversy With His Blockbuster Idea for South Florida

February 22, 1994|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — He owns baseball's Florida Marlins. He owns the Florida Panthers, the hockey team. He just agreed to buy the Miami Dolphins for $138 million. He runs Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., and he's moving big time into television and films.

Now he wants to build a virtual city on the edge of the Everglades, a self-governing, 2,300-acre sports and entertainment complex jammed with major league stadiums, a movie studio, an amusement park and golf courses. It is described as a place where whole families can stay for days and spend hundreds of dollars.

Sound like Disney World?

No, it's Wayne's World.

Behind the ambitious plan to remake the entertainment industry, as well as the map of South Florida, is H. Wayne Huizenga, a 56-year-old multimillionaire sports team mogul, Hollywood contender and would-be Walt Disney whose latest venture has touched off a world of controversy.

Huizenga's plans call for a sports and entertainment village, with separate venues for the hockey and baseball franchises he owns, along with movie production studios, a "virtual reality" center, a museum, restaurants and lakes for water sports.

In his initial proposal, Huizenga asked state legislators to grant him development powers to levy taxes, issue bonds and maintain a police force. That kind of autonomy was granted to Disney in 1967, and some local officials vow never again.

"This is something that is going to bring great revenues to my city, and lots of jobs," says Mayor Vicki Coceano of Miramar, a town of 44,000 between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale that would give up land for Blockbuster Park.

"But the Disney agreement lets them do whatever they please, and that's not going to happen here. We don't want this to become a place with honky-tonks all around the streets."

No fear, says James Blosser, Huizenga's point man on the project. A rewrite of the draft legislation tones down the self-rule provisions and promises that Blockbuster Park will pay local property taxes.

In the last five years, Huizenga has risen from near obscurity to hero in South Florida by spending whatever it took to bring major league sports to the area. He paid $95 million for the Marlins, the National League team, and then shelled out $50 million more for the Panthers, the newest entry in the National Hockey League.

When he announced a deal last month to buy the Dolphins, he already owned 15% of the team and 50% of their home, Joe Robbie Stadium, which is near the park site.

For Huizenga, his Florida operations are just a part of the plan. In January, Blockbuster agreed to merge with Viacom, which owns MTV, Showtime and the Movie Channel, in an $8.4-billion stock swap. Last week, Viacom won a tough battle to take over Paramount Communications. Eventually, that could mean more film and television production for Blockbuster Park.

Huizenga was born in Illinois to parents of Dutch descent. He worked as a truck driver while still a high school student in Ft. Lauderdale. He dropped out of college to devote his time to the garbage business and soon parlayed a small collection route into Waste Management Inc., now WMX Technologies, the largest waste disposal company.

Huizenga was a millionaire when he left Waste Management in 1984 and set about consolidating the fragmented video rental industry. Today, Blockbuster has nearly 3,600 stores worldwide and owns pieces of Republic Pictures Corp. and Spelling Entertainment Group. Huizenga's net wealth is estimated at $800 million.

In contrast to the 30,000 acres for Disney World, Huizenga's Blockbuster Park looks relatively modest.

Yet few doubt that Huizenga, a consummate deal-maker who boasts of keeping score by counting money, has big dreams.

"I think what he has in mind is a world-class, state-of-the-art resort," says Broward County Administrator Jack Osterholt. "You fly into Miami during a three-day Marlins home stand, check into a hotel, play golf, the kids go to the theme park.

"Is this a rival to Disney World? Oh, yeah."

Environmentalists see a major tourist attraction in a sensitive wetland as a dire threat to an endangered ecosystem, as well as to the well-being of residents.

"Which is more important, our water supply or sports?" asks Patti Webster of the Environmental Coalition of Broward County. "There isn't one good reason to allow this development as it is, and I think the public will explode on this."

Still, Blosser does not seem worried. "There is a lot of community support for this. But with any development, an apartment building or a mega-complex like ours, there are always people who don't want to see it happen."

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