"It'll Never Get Off the Ground"

With nothing to show after four years but bitterness and bickering, the plan to turn Homestead Air Force Base into a commercial airport has gone from national model to national embarrassment

Another indication that HABDI is in organizational disarray: According to state records, the corporation was officially dissolved this past August 23 after failing to pay an annual $165 fee. An easily rectifiable technicality, but one that bespeaks disorder.

HABDI's seeming financial worries raise a serious question: Can the company afford to weather all the pending -- and future -- environmental reviews and potential litigation? The outcome of the battle could come down to the matter of whose pockets are deeper, HABDI's or the environmentalists'. And each side's motivations are fundamentally different: HABDI is in the fight to make money, while the environmental community is willing to sacrifice money, without profit motive, to protect the Everglades and Biscayne Bay.

HABDI's reversal of fortune is startling. In January 1996, county commissioners eschewed the bidding process and awarded the group a 70-year lease to transform most of the base into Dade's number-two commercial airport. At the same time, Herrera began a calculated effort to raise his profile nationally within the Democratic Party, becoming a major campaign contributor and a frequent visitor to the nation's capital. Helping him navigate Washington's inner circles was Marvin Rosen, finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee and a partner in the Miami law firm Greenberg Traurig. With Rosen's help, Herrera gained access to both President Clinton and members of his administration, including Transportation Secretary Federico Pena.

Today those contacts are all but useless. Pena is no longer transportation secretary. The Democratic Party's campaign finance scandal has left Rosen a virtual pariah in Washington, and owing to a January 10 article in the New York Times in which Herrera credited Rosen for helping him gain access to White House policymakers, HABDI's name now bears the national taint of disrepute. "We are not as strong as we once were nationally," a HABDI source privately admits.

Quietly, HABDI is trying to solicit support from new quarters in Washington, most notably U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli and U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez. A source familiar with HABDI's inner workings divulges that Herrera has lobbied the two New Jersey Democrats to pressure the Clinton administration into speeding up the base transfer. Torricelli and Menendez have strong ties to South Florida's Cuban-American community and, during their most recent election campaigns, each received thousands of dollars in financial support from members of the powerful Latin Builders Association, of which Herrera is chairman.

Menendez, the highest-ranking Hispanic in Congress, says that during a recent trip to Miami he met separately with Herrera and Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, an inveterate HABDI supporter, to discuss the transfer. "They both explained to me the nature of what was going on," the congressman recalls. "I said I would look into it. I made no promises. I said I understood their concerns regarding economic development but that I was also concerned about the environmental issues." Menendez has since spoken to members of the Clinton administration. "I'm satisfied that the administration is taking a balanced approach to this issue, and that is what I plan to tell Carlos [Herrera] and Alex Penelas." As for Torricelli, a spokesman for the senator says he is unaware of any action the senator might be taking on the Homestead issue (although he did not rule out the possibility that Torricelli might become involved).

That HABDI appears to be floundering only confirms the long-held doubts of County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, whose district includes Homestead. Sorenson, who was on the losing side of the 9-4 vote that gave HABDI the lease, says the entire deal has been hindered by the commission's decision to introduce a private firm into the equation at the beginning of the process. "The way to avoid this was to get the conveyance from the feds first and then start talking about how we are going to develop the base," she asserts. "But by doing this completely backwards, we had a flawed process, so all of these complications became inevitable. Nowhere else in the country has a developer gotten involved in the conveyance process."

Even Sorenson knows that, with or without HABDI, complications would have arisen. Consider this: Apart from all the private and community interests, more than a dozen local, state, and federal agencies have been deeply involved in the base transfer. In other words, more than a dozen huge, process-clogged, red tape-bound agencies, all with their own -- albeit overlapping -- sets of concerns and responsibilities.

Conveying ownership of the base from the air force to the county involves two ongoing processes, federal and state. Federal officials are trying to ensure that, once they turn over the base, development and use of the land is compatible with state and federal plans to restore the Everglades. At the end of this past year, the Department of the Interior appointed a group of representatives from local, state, and federal agencies to draw up a recommended list of actions the agencies should take -- studying the effect of airplane traffic on wildlife, for example, or designating a stormwater treatment system to eliminate polluted runoff -- before handing over the base to Dade County. This past week the coalition, known as the Homestead Air Force Base Issue Team, finalized its recommendations. Top-level federal administrators will eventually settle on a final list, which will take the form of deed restrictions.

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