Very Big Bucks

The most lucrative contract in the history of Miami International Airport is about to be awarded to one lucky company

DFI's original contract to operate at the seaport expired on June 30, 1993, but rather than open the process to bidding, then county manager Joaquin Avino and the county commission agreed to extend it an additional five years.

Even with regard to the vaunted Cuban cigar issue, DFI has an embarrassing admission to make: One of its largest stockholders is a German company called Heinemann, which is itself in the duty-free business in Europe and sells Cuban cigars in its Frankfurt stores. DFI president Al Carfora notes that the company is openly traded on the New York Stock Exchange and has no control over who buys its stock -- therefore it should not be penalized by Dade's cigar rule.

Nevertheless, when Greyhound officials recently discovered Heinemann's financial interest in DFI, they immediately flew a company representative to Frankfurt to buy Cuban cigars and snap photos. The receipts from that purchase will likely be presented to commissioners, and ultimately the county attorney will have to rule on DFI's continued eligibility.

No matter which company the commission selects on Tuesday, October 3, a sense of uncertainty will linger: Had the process been more open, would Dade taxpayers have been better served? If there had been more competition from established and respected international firms, would political influence have been less important than business expertise? And importantly, how badly has Dade's reputation already suffered?

If this duty-free episode were an isolated incident, it might eventually be forgotten. But as Miami International Airport braces for the possibility of a major expansion in its retail and restaurant space (from its current 200,000 square feet to more than 400,000 in the next five years), the county commission seems doomed to continue conducting business in a manner that draws only ridicule and resentment from the larger world of private enterprise.

In its report delivered in March of this year, the Unison Consulting Group warned commissioners that if changes to the system weren't implemented soon, the county would not achieve its goal of building a world-class airport, and perhaps more importantly, it could stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenues. (Last year the airport grossed $135 million in sales from its shops and restaurants. Unison says that figure could soar to more than $500 million per year in the next decade -- if the county follows its recommendations. By law, all such money, including duty-free revenues, must be used for airport improvements.)

Unison's Judy Byrd tried to tell commissioners, as politely as possible, that they were a major part of the problem. "We cannot meet the goals and objectives under the existing structure," she asserted before introducing a novel idea: removing the county commission from airport business and replacing it with a "retail authority" composed of business leaders experienced in airport concessions.

One after another commissioners praised the overall vision of the Unison report (which cost the county $750,000), but condemned its most dramatic proposal: the creation of the autonomous decision-making body. Commissioners complained it would simply become another layer of bureaucracy. A few suggested exploring the idea of hiring a megadeveloper to take control of the airport. Yet six months after Unison's report was issued, neither a retail authority nor the concept of a master developer has seen any progress. At that March meeting Commissioner Pedro Reboredo offered a comment that may help explain why: "We are not here to talk so much about an authority, because I sense that some of us might not want to relinquish the power we have.

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