Flying Blind

Homestead Air Force Base: Hundreds of millions of dollars. An arrogant developer. Nine compliant politicians. A vote taken so late at night you never knew what hit you.

"We're elected by thousands of people," Souto continued. "Are we going to vote for something that we don't know what we are voting on? Is that what we do with the trust that is deposited on us by the people?"

Returning to his flight analogy, he concluded, "We're flying a plane by the instruments and the instruments do not work. This plane is going to hell!"

Carlos Herrera was not expecting this sort of reception. "Oh, man," he moaned in a corner of the gym at about 2:00 a.m. "I should have stayed in the private sector."

A short time later one of Herrera's partners, Camilo Jaime, also expressed concerns about the eventual outcome. "People keep talking about the so-called influential Latin Builders [Association] and how this was a done deal," he said. "I guess we're not so influential."

Three more hours would pass before a vote brought the anxiety to an end. In the meantime, though, an enormously ambitious and potentially lucrative project teetered in the balance. Under the proposed lease, HABDI would control more than 1300 acres of the base and would develop air cargo and maintenance facilities, a commercial passenger terminal, and an industrial office park. Over the next fifteen to twenty years, county officials envisioned Homestead growing to become Dade's second major airport. The long-term estimated value to the developers: between $500 and $700 million.

Politically, the HABDI partners had reason to be confident. Going into the meeting, they felt certain they could count on support from four commissioners: James Burke, Natacha Millan, Pedro Reboredo, and Gwen Margolis. They also believed they had the support of Bruce Kaplan and Alex Penelas. Since the day eighteen months ago that the commission granted HABDI exclusive rights to negotiate a lease for the air base, those six commissioners had consistently been advocates. Their continued backing meant that HABDI needed only one more vote for the required majority.

But they also realized they had four committed votes against them: Katy Sorenson, Dennis Moss, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, and Art Teele.

That left three commissioners up for grabs: Betty Ferguson, Javier Souto, and Maurice Ferre.

In the weeks leading up to the commission meeting, members of HABDI's team, led by lobbyist Miguel DeGrandy, had been meeting with commissioners, shoring up support among the HABDI faithful and hoping to sway a few of the undecided. But they could not ignore the potential trouble that could be caused by the organized opposition, a group called the Concerned Citizens of South Dade. Alex Penelas in particular seemed vulnerable to pressure.

Penelas's (now declared) ambitions to be elected county mayor later this year had landed him in a dilemma. He is expected to receive strong financial backing from the rich coffers of the Latin Builders Association, and he certainly could not risk jeopardizing HABDI's ultimate victory. On the other hand, the countywide vote for mayor meant he could ill afford to alienate thousands of citizens in South Dade. So he proposed to broker a compromise.

Chris Spaulding, president of Concerned Citizens of South Dade, met twice with Penelas, though he says he was suspicious of the commissioner's motives. The second meeting took place just three days before the commission vote. Also present were Carlos Herrera, Miguel DeGrandy, and other HABDI representatives. During a three-hour session at Penelas's North Dade district office, the commissioner proposed to open the project to competitive bidding.

At first Spaulding was intrigued, but he soon realized that the proposal was designed in such a way as to virtually guarantee HABDI's eventual selection. Spaulding concluded that Penelas was more interested in South Dade votes than in a true compromise. "I can't help it if people are going to look at what I did cynically," Penelas counters. "My efforts were sincere."

As the commission meeting was called to order at Southridge High, the chances of a dramatic showdown seemed to have increased from possible to probable. Both supporters and opponents of HABDI did their best to fill the gymnasium with advocates. Early in the meeting a group of nearly 100 Hispanic agricultural workers marched in single file, all of them wearing yellow anti-HABDI signs pinned neatly to their shirts. They filled a section of the bleachers. Not one of them approached the microphone to speak during the public hearing, and before midnight they stood and left together.

A knowledgeable source within Concerned Citizens said the workers had been paid by a wealthy local farmer to attend the meeting. Chris Spaulding, while neither confirming nor denying that account, later said, "We, meaning Concerned Citizens, did not pay anyone to sit at that meeting and it was not done at our request."

HABDI supporters also reportedly brought in a few ringers. One black woman wearing a red pro-HABDI T-shirt explained that she was really from Liberty City and, along with about two dozen others, had been paid to be there as part of a church fundraiser.

Despite such shenanigans, most people were intensely interested in the proceedings -- perhaps none more so than the team from HABDI. Sitting together in their dark suits, they resembled a corporate SWAT team -- lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, investors, financial advisers, real estate appraisers, aviation consultants, marketing consultants, military-base-conversion consultants.

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