Turbulence Over HABDI

Although the lease agreement between the county and HABDI has been contemplated for nearly three years (HABDI was given the exclusive right to develop a plan for the base in July 1994), environmental concerns have delayed the formal transfer of the facility from the federal government to Dade County. County officials won't accept certain portions of the base until the level of contamination -- from oil and fuel seeping into the ground and nearby canals -- is documented and an agreement is reached regarding who will pay for the cleanup. Additionally, environmental groups from across the nation have opposed redeveloping the base and argue that such growth, without adequate advance study, could severely damage Biscayne Bay and Everglades National Park.

The base may be in a temporary state of limbo, but county officials are still dismayed that HABDI has not taken the necessary steps to prepare for its eventual transfer. Why hasn't HABDI produced architectural renderings of what it envisions for the base? Why haven't HABDI officials held town hall-style meetings in South Dade to keep the public informed and to solicit comments regarding its projected development? Why hasn't HABDI produced a marketing plan or a list of tenants? Why hasn't HABDI held a symposium to attract potential investors from South Dade?

The current strife among HABDI's partners may be the reason. "Everybody may be pulling for their own interests," says HABDI board member Manny Romero, "but I still think everyone is pulling for the project."

More troubling, however, is the revelation that several prominent investors who had pledged to bankroll the project have recently withdrawn their support, in part, according to knowledgeable sources, because they did not have confidence in Herrera's ability to manage the endeavor. In February 1996, as a way of calming county commissioners afraid that HABDI would not have the financial wherewithal to fund the project, HABDI produced a letter from Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ), a Wall Street banking house, that said it would "work with HABDI to provide ... not less than $100 million."

But sources familiar with the negotiations say that DLJ is no longer interested in HABDI. As a requirement for putting up the $100 million, the Wall Street firm wanted to assume control of the Florida corporation and install people who knew how to develop and manage an airport. DLJ offered to keep Herrera on as the titular head of the project and provide him a minority share of the company, but Herrera refused. (A DLJ spokeswoman declined to discuss the matter last week.)

Miami investment banker Paul L. Cejas, who earlier this year was identified by Hispanic Business magazine as one of the wealthiest Hispanics in the United States with a net worth of $99 million, was also interested in providing needed capital to HABDI, but he too withdrew because of Herrera's unwillingness to loosen his control over the company, according to informed sources. (Cejas didn't return phone calls seeking his comment.)

In addition to these setbacks, HABDI is also facing a previously unpublicized lawsuit by a group of African Americans, who claim that HABDI has failed to live up to its agreement to allow blacks an opportunity to purchase 25 percent of HABDI's stock. HABDI officials made that concession to county commissioners last year -- along with another pledge to offer up to 24 percent of the company's stock to South Dade residents -- to mollify concerns that this was going to a Cuban/Hialeah takeover of the air base.

A group of blacks formed a partnership known as the Miami Franchise Development Corp. to raise money in the black community to purchase HABDI stock. But according to the lawsuit, filed in November, the group was not allowed to review the necessary financial documents from HABDI that would allow them to determine if the price sought was fair. HABDI counters that it did provide all of the information the group needed to make its decision, and Miami Franchise simply chose not to invest in the project.

Adding further distraction, Herrera and HABDI are now caught up in the Clinton administration's campaign finance scandal. In January Herrera, who donated thousands of dollars to both Clinton and the Democratic Party, bragged to the New York Times (just as he had boasted to me in a column published in June of last year) about his access to the president and to then-transportation secretary Federico Pena. Herrera credited Miami's Marvin Rosen, the embattled former finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, for providing him with the necessary access.

Even with all of HABDI's current problems, the project may still be a success. But these recent, largely unnecessary complications bolster critics of the county commission and its decision to turn over such a valuable piece of property to a group that has little experience in airport development. HABDI's flounderings should be particularly worrisome to Mayor Alex Penelas and Commissioner Natacha Millan, since they were two of the group's strongest supporters. And as more details emerge regarding the development's struggles to get going, that criticism is likely to grow.

When I first approached Rudd and told him what I had learned about the conflicts within HABDI, he was upset. But his anger quickly passed, and he seemed eager to move out from Herrera's shadow and tell someone of his role in the origins of the development. Rudd is something of the forgotten man within HABDI, with most people believing the concept was Herrera's idea. "I am the creator," Rudd says. "After Hurricane Andrew I went to the base. While others saw destruction, ruination, and devastation, I was looking at it saying, 'Well we now have an opportunity to bring it back.'"

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