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.

Despite that, Souto stood by his vote. "I was reassured by the manager that he had taken all of the safeguards possible in the lease to protect the county," he said. "I was assured that this was a safe contract for us. I think it is still up in the air about whether these developers are going to be able to get the job done."

"I've always been in favor of the project," Kaplan affirmed recently in explaining his vote. "I think it is a wonderful project. The question is whether or not these are the right partners for the county. If it turns out they are not, I'm comfortable we have enough ways out of this lease."

Kaplan's and Souto's comments point out a paradoxical aspect of the HABDI deal. Although Carlos Herrera may have won the commission's vote, he does not have its confidence. Throughout the thirteen-hour meeting, not one commissioner vouched for or made an impassioned plea in support of Herrera or any of his partners. Instead, both during and after the meeting, commissioners were more concerned about how well taxpayers would be protected should Herrera and the others bungle this project or go bust.

It is unlikely that any other commissioner has studied the 175-page agreement more closely than Maurice Ferre. And perhaps more coherently than any other commissioner, Ferre can explain why it might be possible to have doubts about Herrera and his partners and yet still vote for the lease.

"I don't think Carlos Herrera is himself financially or historically capable of developing the Homestead Air Force Base," Ferre says flatly. "I do, however, think Carlos Herrera is very capable of making money. And the way to make money is to sell off part or all of this project. The day after the contract is signed, that guy will have a dozen people knocking on his door."

In fact, Ferre is counting on Herrera to "flip" the lease to a more prominent developer with aviation experience. But if that is the case, if there are more qualified firms waiting to jump into this project, then why not reject the lease with HABDI and open the deal to competitive bidding and bring in an experienced developer at the outset?

Because, Ferre says, Dade County government has such a horrible reputation that many major national and international firms refuse to do business directly with it. The proliferation of lobbyists, the very real perception that political connections mean more than qualifications, all discourage interest, he argues. "Everything around here is a major battle. Carlos Herrera, in my opinion, will be able to do in an intelligent way what this commission can't do."

Herrera denies having any plans to sell the lease for his 70-year, multimillion-dollar enterprise. It's his project, he says, and he promises it will be his legacy to Dade County.

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