The Thrill of the Hunt

Carlos Herrera leaped up from Hialeah, took aim, and got himself a beauty: Homestead Air Force Base

Twelve months ago county commissioners granted to Herrera the exclusive right to develop a plan for transforming the base into a private commercial enterprise. At the time, Herrera was little known outside Hialeah (where his business interests are centered), and he had not yet assumed the presidency of the Latin Builders Association. And so bestowing upon him this special status -- an unobstructed shot at what could be a financial bonanza -- took many people by surprise. His newly formed company, Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI, commonly referred to as hab-dee), could undertake the creation of a development plan secure in the knowledge that all potential competitors would be locked out. Officials from Homestead, the city most profoundly affected by such a decision, were shocked. They complained that no one had bothered to brief them regarding HABDI or its plans. They hadn't met with a single representative from the company. In fact, they didn't even know who Carlos Herrera was.

Commissioners were unmoved. Instead they hailed Herrera as an immigrant success story -- in twenty years he had gone from air-conditioning installer to millionaire developer. Commissioner Natacha Millan, a Herrera friend and ally, likened him to Wayne Huizenga, a self-made man of grit, courage, and vision.

With regard to the air base, Herrera's vision encompasses extensive development, including an airport that would quickly become a significant cargo facility and have long-term prospects as a major passenger terminal as well. He also plans at least two industrial parks, aviation maintenance operations, apartment complexes, shopping centers, and a refurbished golf course. To build all this, Herrera says, he will raise and spend some $260 million.

No one familiar with Herrera's proposal can confidently predict exactly what the project might be worth over the course of a lease that's expected to run 60 or 70 years, though some have placed the figure as high as two billion dollars. (Herrera will say only that in five to ten years, the development will be a "real money maker.") Likewise, no one is able to calculate what cost taxpayers might have to shoulder should HABDI's plans fall apart at some point.

Despite these uncertainties, the commission may be asked next week to approve a formal contract between HABDI and Dade County, a lease of public property for private profit unprecedented in its scope. At the very least commissioners are expected to ratify the general terms of such a lease, the details of which are still being negotiated. And with their vote they will set in motion a process that stands to have more impact on the economy of South Dade than anything before or since Hurricane Andrew.

Commissioners will also be expressing their confidence in Carlos Herrera personally. By granting to him such major influence over the future of valuable public assets, they will, in effect, be endorsing his moral character and business ethics. Carlos Herrera, they will be saying to the public, is a straight shooter.

A few weeks ago, during an interview in his Hialeah office, Herrera bristled at the mention of John Grace, his former rival for the development of Homestead Air Force Base. (Before commissioners ordered the county manager's staff to negotiate exclusively with Herrera, Grace had been conducting a very public exploration of possibilities for the base's future.) According to Herrera, Dade County should be grateful it's now dealing with him and not the likes of Grace, who is the nephew of the late Peter Grace, a legendary international businessman and head of the multibillion-dollar W.R. Grace Company.

Speaking of the nephew, Herrera said derisively, "This was a guy who everything was handed to him." During one of his three meetings with Grace last fall, Herrera recalled asking how he made his money. "I sell paper," Grace responded, according to Herrera.

Herrera said he was confused. "Can you explain that?" he asked. Grace then described his dealings in the stock market and his other business ventures. "What you sell are ideas," Herrera responded. "You use your name to sell those ideas to investors." And then Herrera said he asked contemptuously: "Do you feel proud about that?"

Herrera shook his head at the memory of the conversation, and stated that for a man to earn respect, he must build something that can be seen or touched, something that provides jobs for men supporting families. There could be little pride in simply shuffling stocks and bonds for profit.

But Herrera wasn't finished with the subject of John Grace. He was eager to tell the tale of their final meeting, a dramatic encounter with an explosive conclusion -- not unlike one of Herrera's armed adventures in the bush.

It took place this past October 18. Herrera and former state representative Miguel DeGrandy, his attorney and lobbyist, had driven up to West Palm Beach to meet with Grace and one of his partners, Wiley Reynolds. From Herrera's viewpoint, the meeting was simply the last in a series of courtesy calls, nothing more. Three months earlier, when county commissioners voted to grant Herrera exclusive rights to the air base, they also suggested he meet with Grace, who had already spent nearly two years working on his own plan. Perhaps Herrera would be interested in taking on Grace as a partner.

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