The Thrill of the Hunt

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

In the months following the commission's July 14, 1994, decision, Herrera put together the broad outlines of his plan for developing the base. He pledged five million dollars of his own money and said he expected to raise another $255 million from investors. He also began hiring talent.

Among those he recruited to his team as a consultant is Alan Rubin, former vice president of special operations for the Beacon Council, Dade's public-private business-development organization. Rubin was the author of a 1993 county-financed report that examined options for rebuilding and developing Homestead Air Force Base. Herrera also hired Dick Judy, Dade County's former aviation director, to provide advice regarding airport matters. "He's no bullshit," Herrera says of the willful and controversial Judy. "He's my type of guy."

When Herrera's plan came before commissioners this past December, the momentum in favor of endorsing it was overwhelming, even though it lacked detail. Only Katy Sorenson, who had been elected to the commission just a few weeks earlier, voted against the proposal, arguing fruitlessly that the development rights should be bid competitively. The commission then instructed the county manager to begin negotiating a formal lease agreement. Since then Herrera and the county have gone back and forth in proposing their own versions of a contract.

Assistant County Attorney Gail Fels describes the negotiations to date as "bizarre." Until this past week, for example, the county attorney's staff has been excluded from recent meetings between HABDI representatives and the county manager's office. "In any other deal I've been involved with," Fels notes, "the attorney sits in on all sessions." A number of important issues reportedly remain unresolved, but some commissioners are expected to push for intensified negotiations in order that preliminary approval might be granted next week, before the commission takes its August recess.

"What's the big rush?" asks Chris Spaulding, head of a group called Concerned Citizens of South Dade, which favors a competitive bidding process for the air base's development. "Why are they trying to shove this plan down the taxpayers' throats? They put together a political deal and now they are trying to cram it through."

Spaulding and his allies maintain an abiding suspicion of almost everything related to Herrera's advantageous position. For instance, HABDI initially agreed to guarantee 25 percent black participation in the project, and to give preference to South Dade firms seeking construction and other related contracts. Yet neither of these provisions has appeared in early HABDI drafts of the lease agreement. "HABDI has not been willing to put those issues in a legally binding contract. If it's not in the lease, then there is nothing that is going to make HABDI comply with these goals," says Spaulding, who works as a real estate appraiser and broker.

He is also critical of what he considers to be HABDI's skimpy financial commitment as proposed in drafts of the contract: eight million dollars in the first five years. In addition, Spaulding points out that if HABDI gets its way, the company will be able to use taxpayer dollars to develop a private golf course that would be closed to the public. And he claims the county would be liable for close to $300 million in infrastructure improvements under HABDI's version of a lease. (County officials put the figure at $160 million.)

Also under the terms of HABDI's proposed lease, the county would be responsible for any environmental cleanup not completed by the federal government. (The air force has agreed to clean the base to state and federal standards, but county officials acknowledge that the county's own standards may be more stringent, particularly if the site includes apartments.)

According to attorney George Knox, who has represented Concerned Citizens of South Dade, Dade County is in a poor bargaining position. If the county rejects HABDI's proposal because the two sides cannot agree on the terms of a lease, it could be seen as an affront to the Cuban-American community. Politically, Knox argues, it's also clear that Carlos Herrera has a solid block of commissioners who appear willing to lend their support to nearly any lease that's brought before them. "HABDI doesn't have to make many compromises," he says. "They have the supreme confidence that they have the deal. It's already a done deal."

HABDI is also demanding that it be given a management agreement under which the county would pay the company to operate a new Homestead airport. According to critic Spaulding, that makes no sense. No other county airport -- Miami International, Tamiami, Opa-locka -- is operated under a management agreement. "I can't understand why Dade County is even considering a management agreement," Spaulding says. "The county is talking about laying off hundreds of employees. Why don't we simply use some of the staff we have to operate the facility?"

Spaulding adds that HABDI's own aviation adviser, Dick Judy, has stated publicly that the county won't need a second airport to relieve Miami International for twelve to fifteen years. Again, Spaulding asks, what's the rush?

Herrera responds that he needs to move quickly because he is already negotiating with several major airport-related businesses. "I've got tenants lined up," he claims. The most persistent speculation holds that Federal Express will be his anchor tenant, and Homestead will become a hub for its overnight deliveries to Latin America. Company spokesmen will not comment about such possibilities, but this past May FedEx chairman Frederick Smith, in an interview with the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, said, "We intend to expand our operations significantly in Miami. We are looking at the use of Homestead. It might be a good operation for a mini-hub."

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