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Mother and son came to the United States in 1964, when Carlos was seven years old, and settled in Hialeah. Every morning Herrera's mother was up at 4:00 a.m. to catch a bus that would take her to a tomato-processing plant near Homestead. Carlos worked as well. His first job, at age nine, was delivering the Miami Herald. When he was fifteen, he hired on with an air-conditioning company; the work was hard but the money made it worthwhile. "I realized right away that this was a good business to be in," he recalls. "Air conditioning in Florida is a necessity, not a luxury."
By the time he graduated from Hialeah High in 1974, he had both a vocation and a fiancee. He married Herminia Remedios when he was eighteen and launched his own air-conditioning business a year later. Herrera invested nearly all the young couple's savings in the new venture, with most of it going to the purchase of a used van for $1800. He called his operation Local Air Conditioning.
Herrera figured he and his wife could survive a month or two on what they had left in the bank, but he fully expected to attract work sooner than that. "It never crossed my mind that I wouldn't succeed," he says. "When people are sleeping and you're still working, you are going to make it." As he built a reputation for high-quality work, he was recruited to install the air ducts and cooling units for more and more Hialeah office buildings and housing developments. Today Local Air has about 70 employees, and produces between seven and eight million dollars in revenue per year, according to Herrera.
But he had ambitions beyond being the guy hired by developers to install their air conditioning. He wanted to be the developer. In 1984 he got his chance, having secured a $500,000 loan from Ready State Bank to build, along with Roberto Curbelo, 152 homes in the Mango Hills neighborhood of Hialeah. "We made good money on that deal," Herrera says. The two men split $1.5 million in profit, he explains, and he rolled his share into another deal, and then another.
Roberto Cayon is the president of Hialeah-based Ready State Bank and the man who took that early chance on Herrera. "We knew Carlos for many, many years," offers Cayon, himself a developer. "I've seen Carlos grow from the time he was a kid. He and his mother lived in an apartment building I owned. He started from scratch. He's a hard-working man. You can tell the guy is going to pay."
In the last ten years, Herrera has built and sold more than 700 homes. He has also constructed more than twelve apartment complexes, as well as a dozen warehouses and storage facilities. He's become a veritable conglomerate of nearly a dozen companies, some of which buy land, some of which build, and others of which manage the more than 600 rental units he owns, mostly in and around Hialeah. His rents run from $550 for one bedroom to $650 for two bedrooms. With a vacancy rate of only about two percent, his apartments alone bring in another four to five million dollars each year.
At least once a month Herrera visits each of his buildings. On one recent outing, he spent more than an hour cruising around northwest Hialeah in his silver Mercedes 500SL, his right index finger in almost constant motion as he pointed out homes and apartments he's built. Nine years ago, when he first came to this part of Hialeah beyond the Palmetto Expressway, he says it was nothing but cows and scrub brush, a rural setting no one imagined suitable for development. No one except Herrera, that is. He bought 70 acres at $80,000 per acre. Today land in the area is now selling for more than twice that amount.
"That was the first house we built," he says from his car. "And then that one and that one." Herrera sold them for $70,000; now, he says with pride, the owners are reselling them for $100,000 or more. His apartment buildings stand out as well -- they appear neat and well maintained.
Herrera won't reveal his net worth or yearly income (the latter, he notes, varies depending on the projects he has going). He is aware, though, that his wealth has been the subject of speculation in some circles -- specifically that he earned his money through drug trafficking or gun running. "There are a lot of rumors," he acknowledges dismissively. "It's jealousy." However, those rumors are also due in part to Herrera's relatively quick rise to prominence, coupled with skepticism that an empire could be built on air conditioners. And of course South Florida has seen its share of shooting stars, men who burst onto the scene with bundles of cash and little history. But Herrera maintains he is no overnight success, and he's not suddenly going to flame out. "I see in Homestead the opportunity I saw in Hialeah," he says with confidence.
John Grace and Wiley Reynolds also saw opportunity in the Homestead area. Almost immediately after Hurricane Andrew, they began meeting with officials in South Dade to discuss their evolving idea that the devastated air base might be developed privately. The basics of their plan called for the federal government to give a portion of the base to Dade County, which would then sell that property to a company Grace had formed, the South Dade Coalition for Reconstruction. The company, in turn, would raise money for development through a public stock offering. South Dade residents would be encouraged to buy shares in the company.