The Thrill of the Hunt

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

"This was going to be a community-sensitive privatization of a state-owned asset," Grace says. "It wasn't going to be a John Grace company; it was going to be a Homestead community company. If we owned five to ten percent after the community offering, we would have been lucky." This approach, Grace notes, is similar to that employed by some communities when a key company is threatened with closure. Rather than allow the business to shut down and throw people out of work, the employees and their neighbors pool resources to purchase the enterprise. Homestead officials in particular seemed eager to consider the feasibility of Grace's proposal.

Carlos Herrera's interest in the air base blossomed nearly a year and a half later, and even then his ideas were much more modest than those being pursued by Grace and Reynolds. In early 1994 he put together a plan in which his new company, HABDI, would lease 106 acres of base land and construct a maintenance and paint facility for cargo planes.

On July 11, 1994, the county commission's aviation committee met to receive a briefing from county staff regarding both HABDI's and Grace's tentative plans for the air base. Billed only as a "status report," no definitive action was anticipated at the meeting. But almost immediately Commissioner Natacha Millan made it clear she was offended that the local group, HABDI, wasn't being given the opportunity to develop the entire base. "We're not giving them the due respect," she declared, referring to Herrera and his partners.

County staffers attempted to explain that HABDI had never expressed an interest in developing anything more than the 106 acres, but Millan persisted. In fact, she prompted Virgilio Perez, a HABDI vice president, to assert that HABDI now wanted the entire project. "HABDI is a local company with enough strength to handle this 106 acres plus the whole base if given the opportunity," Perez said.

And at that moment the meeting took a dramatic turn. Instead of analyzing the two preliminary proposals, commissioners passionately began to debate the merits of supporting local, minority-owned businesses. Suddenly, even though a vote had never been envisioned, Commissioner James Burke (who has since become a notable Herrera booster) presented a motion to grant HABDI the exclusive right to create a development plan for Homestead Air Force Base. Millan quickly seconded.

John Grace and Wiley Reynolds, who were present at the committee meeting, couldn't believe what they were hearing. The push for HABDI appeared to have been scripted. And a majority of the commissioners in attendance openly acknowledged they hadn't even read the plan Grace and Reynolds submitted. "Please," Reynolds pleaded, "at least read our proposal before you vote."

County aviation director Gary Dellapa also tried to slow down the commissioners. He told them his staff wasn't prepared for a motion like this, that they would like more time to study their alternatives. "The discussion today went a lot farther than I expected it to," he said nervously. He even suggested the commission might want to open up the process and formally invite proposals from a number of firms, locally and nationally. But the measure passed the committee unanimously.

Three days later the resolution passed by the aviation committee came before the full commission for consideration. Giving exclusive development rights to a Hispanic firm would be an important test of political power, especially in light of the enormity of the project. Only a year earlier district elections had radically altered the makeup of the commission. Rather than having just one seat on the dais, as they had previously, Hispanics now constituted six of thirteen votes. Blacks, who similarly had had just one representative, now had four.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, an African American whose South Dade district includes the air base, expressed his skepticism: "Now, at the last minute, we are rolling in here with a proposal to develop the whole base. And folks in South Dade don't even know what's going on. I've got some serious concern about this." But Natacha Millan again came to Herrera's aid. She reminded her colleagues that just 48 hours earlier they had voted to assist Wayne Huizenga in his efforts to build a huge entertainment complex. "I think we can take the same chance we took on Mr. Wayne Huizenga and perhaps take a chance on Mr. Carlos Herrera," she said.

Herrera prevailed. The vote was unanimous. And the door was slammed shut on any competing interests.

A year later John Grace and Wiley Reynolds are still reeling. "HABDI walked in and had no plan for developing the whole base and it was handed to them in a flash," Reynolds says in disbelief. "The commission wouldn't even consider an offer we made to invest $60 million and eliminate the need for the county to put any taxpayer money into the base."

In Reynolds's view, Dade County is jeopardizing its long-term financial health by discouraging outside investors. The manner in which commissioners handled the air base issue, he predicts, will only serve to scare away businesses thinking of moving to South Florida. "I don't know why anyone on the outside would even have any interest in doing business in Dade County," he says with disgust. "I saw how this county works and I'm appalled by it."

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