Billionaires are the talk of the nation. There are 1,645 in the world, and 37 live in Florida, according to Forbes. About a third of those have a residence in South Florida. Some are well-known leaders who run major businesses. Micky Arison founded Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise operator, and now owns the Miami Heat. Edward S. Lampert is CEO of Sears Holdings. Edmund Ansin cofounded Sunbeam Television.
Many of the wealthiest have sought to improve their communities by becoming museum patrons. Patricia and Philip Frost provided generous financial support for the construction of the Miami Science Museum, and it has been renamed in their honor.
Befitting the growing Latino presence in Miami, there now is billionaire Jorge M. Pérez, who made his fortune building high-rise, multifamily apartments across the city. He supports the Pérez Art Museum Miami and speaks often about the importance of cultural organizations for metropolitan areas.
Other billionaires have entered the political realm and generated controversy in their civic dealings. Stephen M. Ross, for instance, owner of the Miami Dolphins, sparked considerable discussion over a request for public support of a stadium renovation. Concerned about the condition of Sun Life Stadium, where his team plays, he asked for a referendum that would provide $379 million in taxpayer funding for its renovation. “Miami is about big events,” he told ESPN. “Having a first-class facility in a city that right now [is] the most [desirable] city in the world... I think it really demands it.”
Yet when he gave $200 million to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, for a business school and an athletic complex, Florida legislative leaders held up his taxpayer-funding request. Ross expressed difficulty understanding why lawmakers and many members of the general public would oppose a subsidy that would benefit his football team—in spite of the fact that studies have found that sports stadiums rarely generate enough jobs or tax revenues to justify the huge amount of tax dollars that local governments invest in building and maintaining them. Ross has since come up with the renovation funds himself and will foot the entire bill, turning the community boos to cheers.
This friction is not surprising. In an era when billionaires are glorified and take on celebrity status, people discuss and debate their every move. Even billionaires themselves—one Palm Beach billionaire I know complains about a wealthy neighbor who disturbs the quiet of the coastal community when he flies a helicopter a couple of miles up the Florida coast to a golf course instead of taking a car. Whatever their personal or professional activities, billionaires are shaping community and civic life around America and, indeed, the world.