Collision Course

Three weeks before election day, Al Gore dispatched some of his top advisors to South Florida to shore up support among environmentalists. With Green Party candidate Ralph Nader looming larger and larger in the final weeks of the campaign, Gore needed to make sure his own base was secure within the local environmental community and that its members would turn out for him in record numbers.

Leading the delegation was Kathleen McGinty, former chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. As a senior policy advisor for both Gore and the Democratic National Committee, McGinty was instrumental in helping define many of the vice president's positions on ecological matters during the campaign.

Playing chauffeur for McGinty on this day was Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board. A passionate defender of the Everglades, Berger has been friends with Gore for more than fifteen years. If Gore were to win the presidency, Berger, one of the Democratic Party's biggest fundraisers, would be a strong contender for appointment as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rounding out the contingent was Sam Poole, an environmental attorney and partner in Berger's law firm, Berger Davis & Singerman. Poole, a Democrat, was the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District from 1994 until 1999, at which time he was unceremoniously fired by Gov. Jeb Bush's new appointees to the governing board.

McGinty and the others had tried to keep their visit a secret, inviting only a few key local environmental leaders they believed they could count on to fall in line behind the vice president. Among the invitees were Karsten Rist and Don Chinquina, president and executive director, respectively, of the Tropical Audubon Society; Frank Jackalone, senior regional representative of the Sierra Club; and Mark Kraus, representing the state chapter of the National Audubon Society.

The October 18 meeting was conducted at the Tropical Audubon Society's South Miami headquarters, a 69-year-old historic home known as the Doc Thomas House. With the sun beginning to set, the group gathered in the living room. McGinty began the meeting by stressing how important it was for environmentalists to rally around Gore in the closing days of the campaign. She noted that throughout Gore's career in public office, protecting the environment had been one of his highest priorities. Now it was time for the environmental community to come to his aid.

Whatever hopes McGinty had for enthusiastic cooperation were quickly shattered. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson -- who had not been invited to the meeting but showed up anyway -- demanded to know why the vice president hadn't come out against plans for converting Homestead Air Force Base to a commercial airport.

Ever since the base was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the federal government has been considering a proposal to give a large portion of the airfield -- approximately 1300 acres -- to Miami-Dade County, which already has decided to lease the base to a group of politically influential local businessmen working under the name Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., commonly known by its acronym HABDI (pronounced hab-dee). In January 1996 the county commission awarded development rights to HABDI in a 70-year no-bid contract, the largest such contract in county history. (Some knowledgeable sources have estimated those development rights to be worth more than $500 million over the next twenty years.) Sorenson has been the deal's most persistent critic.

Sorenson's objections, however, were not limited to the sleazy appearance of county commissioners awarding a sweetheart contract to a group of politically connected developers. Her principal concern was the potential negative impact on the environment. The proposed airport, which would generate up to 230,000 flights annually, sits between Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park, one of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the United States. Nearly every major environmental group in the nation has opposed a commercial airport at the base. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and EPA administrator Carol Browner also have condemned the plan.

By remaining neutral on the issue, Sorenson argued, the vice president was not only betraying his own environmental record, he also was undermining his chances of carrying Florida in the November 7 election. Others at the meeting echoed Sorenson's complaint. Chinquina said the vice president was disappointing scores of environmentalists because of his silence on the Homestead issue. He reported that he had tried on several occasions to recruit volunteers from among his 3000 Tropical Audubon members to participate in phone banks for the Gore campaign but had found few people willing. Time and again, Chinquina told McGinty, Audubon members cited Gore's silence on Homestead as their reason for refusing to help.

The vice president's reticence was driving his supporters to Nader, who already was using the Homestead air base issue in his stump speeches around the nation as proof there was no real difference between Gore and Republican nominee George W. Bush. The Texas governor also was refusing to take a position on Homestead.

McGinty vainly tried to convince the group that the vice president was remaining neutral on the airport debate out of respect for the process under way to determine the base's future. A supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) was being prepared to study the effects of the proposed airport. A draft of that report had been released in December 1999, but until the final report was presented, Gore would hold his opinions in abeyance.

Berger and McGinty both argued that if Gore were to make any statement about Homestead in the closing weeks of the campaign, it would look as though he were pandering to the environmental community. Their audience was unmoved.

The notion that Gore was trying to keep politics out of the process was met with disbelief. For one thing the final version of the SEIS was supposed to have been published in July but was postponed until after November 7. Many in the environmental community believe the delay was intentional, a ploy that allowed the vice president to avoid taking a position prior to election day. Some were beginning to question Gore's motives.

The meeting grew tense when Sorenson asked Berger if it was true he represented Church & Tower, the construction company owned by the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation. (In addition to owning Church & Tower, the Mas family is a major shareholder in HABDI.) Berger acknowledged it was true but said his work for the Mas family had nothing to do with the vice president's position on the airport.

Once again those at the meeting appeared unwilling to accept the answer.

McGinty revealed that Gore was contemplating a campaign rally in South Florida that would emphasize his lifelong defense of the environment and the Clinton administration's efforts to restore the Everglades. If the vice president were to hold such a rally in South Florida, McGinty wondered, would there be protesters?

The answer she received was unambiguous: You can count on it.

According to those present, McGinty replied, "It breaks the vice president's heart" that he can't schedule an environmental event in South Florida for fear of being embarrassed by protesters over the Homestead issue.

"There were a lot of questions about whether he could risk showing up down here," recalls Chinquina. "And our answer was no. Unless he is coming to announce his position on the air base, don't come."

As the meeting drew to a close, after more than two hours of debate, McGinty tried to end on a positive note. "Win or lose, the vice president wants you to know that he cares about you," she reportedly said.

"Well, take our friendship back to the vice president," Chinquina replied, "and tell him that only a true friend will tell you what you don't want to hear. And what you don't want to hear is that you are going to lose this election because of Homestead. Because no matter what we say, a lot of our folks are going to vote for Nader."

Chinquina was right. Forget about hanging chads and butterfly ballots. Forget about confused voters and missing ballot boxes. Forget about recounts and lawsuits. If Al Gore loses Florida's 25 electoral votes, and with them the presidency, he can blame himself for refusing to stand in opposition to an airport at Homestead Air Force Base.

Ralph Nader received more than 96,000 votes in Florida. In the final week of the campaign, he visited Miami and hammered away at the vice president's silence regarding Homestead. "Al Gore is waffling as usual," Nader exclaimed. "He refuses to take a position as usual."

On the eve of the election, Nader sent out a letter to environmentalists across the state, attacking both Gore and Bush but singling out Gore for particular scorn. "On the Everglades, currently a key issue in a hotly contested state, Gore has worked with the Florida government (including Gov. Jeb Bush) to cut deals for the “recovery plan' that allows for major development around this national treasure," Nader wrote. "Gore has not opposed a proposed commercial airport on the site of the former Homestead Air Force Base, despite the protest of local people working for conservation and his own EPA. There are no airports situated on the border of national parks in America; the Everglades is the last place to consider changing that fact. In general, work to restore the Everglades should be done for the public, and for future generations, not on the basis of debts called in by the sugar industry and local power brokers."

Until now the controversy surrounding Homestead has largely been viewed as a local issue. But that is about to change. Soon it will take center stage nationally. The SEIS is expected to be released within days. That will put increasing pressure on the Clinton administration to make a decision about the base's future before its term expires. Complicating matters, the choice will not simply be airport or no airport.

In addition to HABDI's long-standing proposal, officially backed by the Miami-Dade County government, the federal government also is considering a second development option, known as the Collier-Hoover plan, which would include an office park, retail outlets, a resort hotel with two golf courses, research and educational facilities, and a large aquarium.

The Collier family, Florida pioneers who once owned much of Southwest Florida and for whom Collier County was named, owns the right to drill for oil and gas in the Big Cypress National Preserve, 45 miles west of Miami. They would be willing to trade a portion of those drilling rights in Big Cypress for the opportunity to develop the air base.

Joining the Collier family is Lacey Hoover Chase, whose father, Herbert Hoover, was both the founder of the Hoover vacuum cleaner company and a renowned environmentalist. It was Lacey Hoover Chase's idea to create a world-class aquarium and an environmental education center on the site. "This is sort of like a marriage," she says of her partnership with the more business-minded Colliers. "If you are going to be an environmentalist in this day and age, you need to understand the economic issues as well and bridge the gap between the two."

The Collier-Hoover plan has the support of most environmental groups in South Florida. But the airport plan has its own core of supporters, led by Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

The federal government has two basic options. First it can turn over the base to Miami-Dade County for the airport, attaching various restrictions on its use to mitigate potential harm to the environment. The second option involves transferring control of the base from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior, allowing Interior officials to negotiate directly with the Collier-Hoover team. (There also are myriad variations on these two options, including a King Solomon approach: Split the base in half and give each side a share.) Technically the decision rests with the secretary of the air force, but many involved in the process believe Homestead's fate lies within the White House.

After years of sparring between airport proponents and opponents, the main event appears to be imminent, and it is shaping up to be a heavyweight bout.

This past February 1, as chartered buses idled outside South Dade Senior High School, nearly 1000 people gathered inside for the first public hearing on the draft version of the SEIS. Among those who had arrived early to testify was David Ritz, president of the Ocean Reef Community Association. The Ocean Reef Club is an exclusive enclave of approximately 1900 homes at the tip of north Key Largo, roughly twelve miles southeast of the air base. Residents were so concerned about the proposed airport that more than 100 of them turned out for the meeting, piling into buses for the trip from their island retreat to the high school. "Some of these folks had probably never been in public transportation before," laughs Alan Farago, an environmentalist recently hired by the Ocean Reef group to fight the airport plan.

They also weren't accustomed to the way they were about to be treated.

Ritz says that even though he and the other Ocean Reef residents arrived early and were among the first to place their names on the speakers' list, it soon became apparent that the list meant nothing, and that the order of speakers was being controlled by those who supported the airport proposal. "Penelas had lined up 25 politicians, every tin-horn politician from Aventura to South Miami," Farago recalls. "And they dominated the public testimony for hours."

Adds Ritz: "They obviously had no interest in hearing from the public. It was very frustrating."

"It was a rigged deal from the start," says Rich Miller, an Ocean Reef resident since 1981. "People got tired of it after a while, and we decided to leave. But I realized we had to do something. We had to get organized. That meeting really turned people on to the issue. It energized this community big-time."

"People were motivated," Ritz agrees.

As the Ocean Reef contingent climbed back into their buses for the ride home, Farago couldn't have been happier. "They saw what was going on with their own eyes," he recounts. "They were subjected to being heckled and booed. It was pretty nauseating. And that turned the tide. As Ocean Reef filed out, I knew we were going to win. Penelas and [Homestead Mayor] Steve Shiver and the other airport backers had totally misread their opposition as just a group of fringe environmentalists."

According to Farago the airport boosters had committed a fatal error: They'd pissed off a bunch of very wealthy people. Within weeks of that meeting, members of the Ocean Reef Community Association approved a plan to assess themselves fees and build a two-million-dollar war chest to battle the airport. "We realized we shouldn't let this process continue," Ritz says. Their first act was to hire Farago and keep him working full-time through a group he formed called the Everglades Defense Council. His contracts with Ocean Reef total $250,000.

For the past five years Farago, who is 46 years old, had been challenging the airport plan as a volunteer for the Miami chapter of the Sierra Club. His vigorous activity eventually led to him becoming a spokesman for the organization on that particular issue.

When HABDI attorney Ramon Rasco learned of Farago's high-paid position representing Ocean Reef, he claimed it constituted a conflict of interest with respect to his Sierra Club role. In response to that charge, Farago withdrew as the environmental group's spokesman. But that hasn't stopped Rasco from criticizing Farago and the Ocean Reef Club residents. "There are some big-money interests that, for one reason or another, are paying environmentalists to scare the people of South Florida that HABDI is going to ruin the bay and ruin the Everglades," Rasco grumbles. "And they know that this is a lie."

Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver contends that the Ocean Reef crowd is elitist and only lives in South Florida during the winter months. "They are snowbirds," he asserts, "and they are insensitive to the needs of this community." Shiver also notes that some Ocean Reef residents don't want their money used to fight the airport and have sued to stop the community association from collecting more money. "There is a major rift in paradise," he quips. "They don't even agree."

Regarding his financial arrangement with Ocean Reef, Farago is unapologetic. The compensation is fair and necessary, he says. In order to devote his attention to the project full-time, he was forced to take a leave of absence from his job as a financial analyst. And while he has always believed the proposed airport represents a serious threat to the environment, he also acknowledges there is a not-in-my-back-yard element (NIMBY) at work among some Ocean Reef residents. Obviously they don't want jet planes flying over their expensive homes, ruining their tranquility. "Yeah, it's a NIMBY issue," Farago admits, "but the people who are there, in the dealings I've had with them, I feel very comfortable that they understand the big picture. They understand that the money they are giving is not only going to help preserve their quality of life, but it is also going to protect the national parks."

"The reason people move here," says resident Rich Miller, "is because they want to be close to nature and the parks. This is why we all came here to begin with."

Typically, Farago relates, environmentalists are hopelessly outspent in these sorts of fights. HABDI, through its own shell committee called the Equal Justice Coalition, spent approximately $960,000 between July 1, 1999, and June 30, 2000, on the high-powered Washington lobbying firm of Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson and Hand, whose partners include former U.S. senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell. In addition to their own lobbyists, HABDI can count on Miami-Dade County to spend taxpayer money on its own lobbyists to press its case in Washington.

The money from Ocean Reef is intended to balance the scales. "I wouldn't say we've leveled the playing field," says Ritz. "What we are able to do is give the environmentalists a reasonable chance."

On October 5 a funny thing happened to county Commissioner Javier Souto on his way to that day's commission meeting: He got stuck in traffic. South Florida was still reeling from the no-name storm that had drenched the area two days earlier, and Souto was unable to easily navigate his car through the flooded roads. He ended up being more than two hours late to the meeting. By the time he made it to county hall, he was incensed.

Soon after Souto arrived, the commission took up a controversial proposal to extend the urban development boundary line, which is designed to prevent developers from pushing farther and farther west toward the Everglades. A proposed 1400-home housing development known as Lakes of the North was being planned west of Miami Lakes. The developer wanted to build 1400 homes on 413 acres of land between Interstate 75 and the Florida Turnpike. One of the chief beneficiaries of the project would have been the Graham Companies, which owned most of the land. The Graham Companies is owned by the family of Sen. Bob Graham.

Coming into the meeting, the attorneys for the developer appeared cocksure they would win. Tropical Audubon's Don Chinquina recalls spotting Bill Graham -- the senator's nephew and president of the Graham Companies -- in the front row, brimming with confidence. They needed seven votes to break the boundary line and allow the development to proceed. Commissioners Dorrin Rolle, Miriam Alonso, Bruno Barreiro, Natacha Seijas, Pedro Reboredo, and Jimmy Morales were all onboard with the plan. The developers needed one more, and they felt certain they had their seventh vote in Souto.

But then Souto began recounting his harrowing drive earlier that day. He questioned whether the county should expand the development boundary when it was having so much difficulty maintaining the infrastructure of existing neighborhoods. It was as if, through the divine intervention of a severe rainstorm, Souto now understood the concerns of the environmental community. Chinquina recalls with a chuckle: "When Souto started off, I was sitting behind Bill Graham, and the look on his face -- it was as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing."

Once Souto made his feelings known, the developer withdrew his request.

For environmentalists the episode was revealing in a couple of ways. First it demonstrated that miracles are possible. But it also highlighted the darker side of the Graham family business.

In 1962 the Grahams began converting their land holdings -- five and a half square miles of cattle pasture -- into the planned community of Miami Lakes. Many family members, including Sen. Bob Graham, continue to live there. Meticulously maintained and highly regulated (one Democratic insider calls it "Grahamville," a reference to the family's tight control over civic affairs), the community's mixed-use design and hometown feel has won high praise from urban planners.

It has also proved to be enormously lucrative for the Grahams. Family-owned land valued at $50 per acre in 1948 now sells for more than $350,000 per acre. Because the Graham Companies is privately held, detailed financial information is not available to the public, though some analysts estimate the company's annual revenue to be well in excess of $75 million. According to his most recent financial disclosure forms, Sen. Bob Graham describes his private holdings, most of which stem from the Graham Companies, as having a value of between $1.9 million and $6.8 million. (Senate rules do not require him to be more specific.)

Environmentalists believe that Graham's unflagging support for building a commercial airport in Homestead is directly linked to his interest in protecting those family assets. If environmentalists are successful in blocking the Homestead airport, the theory goes, then the next likely candidate for expansion of Miami-Dade's aviation facilities would be the county-owned Opa-locka airport, which borders the eastern edge of Miami Lakes and is only lightly used today. A major commercial airport adjacent to "Grahamville" would not only have a potentially adverse effect on the value of his family's holdings, it would prove to be a very noisy neighbor.

In other words, by pushing for a new airport to be built in Homestead, Senator Graham is ensuring that one never gets built in his back yard.

"I think Graham is the driving force behind the Homestead plans," says Chinquina. "The only thing I can think is that the man is doing this to protect his family's investment in Miami Lakes. He doesn't want those planes flying over those houses he's building out there.

"As long as this fight has been happening, he has been pro-airport all the way in Homestead," Chinquina continues. "And if there is anybody who has been willing to circumvent the process to get that airport up, it's Bob Graham. I know of meetings leading up to the decision to initiate an SEIS where Bob Graham was in offices pounding his fist on tables saying, “This will be an airport.' He was getting emotionally involved in this thing, trying to twist the president's arm to not to move forward with an SEIS, to get that airport on line."

In 1996, for instance, New Times reported that Graham pressured Sen. John Chaffee (R-Rhode Island) to withdraw a request he had made to the General Accounting Office for an investigation into the Homestead airport proposal.

County Commissioner Katy Sorenson says she also has been disturbed by Graham's actions. "I've been frustrated with Senator Graham's position on this issue," she reports. "I've talked to him myself and met with members of his staff. At first he was noncommittal, then he was more pro-airport. I don't think he's ever been with the environmentalists on this issue."

Adds Alan Farago: "Bob Graham has left a trail of anger and disappointment over the Homestead Air Force Base. It is a terrible disappointment that this issue will now be a lasting part of his legacy and will seriously tarnish his reputation as an environmentalist."

"We've talked to Senator Graham many times," says Ocean Reef's David Ritz, "and we have not been very successful. He is more concerned with the airport issues than he is with the environmental issues. It does surprise me that he is not leading the charge to protect this national resource."

Kim James, a spokeswoman in Graham's Washington office, denies the senator has been pushing for the airport development in Homestead. "Senator Graham has had an historic interest in transportation needs in South Florida, going back to the days before he was governor," James says. "On the issue of the conveyance of Homestead Air Force Base, Senator Graham has said that he will await the results of the secretary of the air force's review of the supplemental environmental impact study and will be guided by his recommendations."

Environmentalists find it ironic that, with regard to this subject, their strongest allies have often been Republicans while their fiercest opponents have been Democrats. Outgoing Republican Sen. Connie Mack, for example, opposes the development of a commercial airport at the air base. One of Mack's Republican colleagues, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, tried to guarantee that the proposed airport would not hinder plans to restore the Everglades.

On the other hand, redeveloping the base as a commercial airport has been supported over the years by Graham and fellow Democrats such as Penelas, Congresswoman Carrie Meek, former Gov. Lawton Chiles, Senator-elect Bill Nelson while he was state insurance commissioner, and State Sen. Daryl Jones.

"One of our scariest moments was when [Jones] was up for secretary of the air force," Chinquina relates, referring to President Clinton's 1997 nomination of the South Miami-Dade legislator to the post. Many environmentalists believe that if Jones had been confirmed as air force secretary, he would have pushed through the plan to turn over the base to Miami-Dade County. Jones eventually withdrew his nomination following questions raised by this newspaper regarding his service in the air force reserve and his involvement as a lobbyist in a local municipal bond deal.

Given that history of Democratic support for the airport proposal, it's understandable local environmentalists would have been skeptical at the October 18 meeting when Mitchell Berger, Democratic Party fundraiser and long-time Gore friend, tried to reassure them that his professional ties to the Mas family were no cause for concern.

Berger maintains that his work for Church & Tower is confined to representing them in a dispute with the Broward County school system. He insists he is not doing any work for HABDI. In the past, Berger says, he has been approached by both sides -- those representing HABDI and those representing the Collier-Hoover team -- to discuss the transfer of the base, but he has always refused. "The lobbyists who are working for HABDI have talked to me about it and the lobbyists who are working for the Colliers have talked to me about it," he acknowledges. "They've each tried to engage me to be an advocate for their side, and I've said no. I tell them I do not want to talk to them about that."

Farago doubts Berger's claims of impartiality, calling them "disingenuous at best. If that's true," he says, "then he does a better job of compartmentalizing than Bill Clinton."

Using history as a measure, Miami-Dade County officials are optimistic the federal government will turn over the deed to Homestead Air Force Base so HABDI can convert it to a commercial airport. In recent years there have been 32 military base closings in which the local government, in this case Miami-Dade County, asked for the land. In every case the federal government complied with those requests.

Increasing the likelihood of a transfer to the county, negotiations between the federal government and the Collier family have been unproductive. At issue is the value of the Colliers' mineral rights allowing them to drill for oil and gas in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Negotiations have been private, but sources familiar with the preliminary discussions say the two sides are far apart, with the Colliers estimating their mineral rights to be worth between $600 million and $800 million, and the Department of the Interior placing the figure between $100 million and $200 million.

Bob Duncan, general manager for the Collier Resources Company, says the family is waiting to see the final outcome of the supplemental environmental impact statement before entering into serious negotiations. "I think the success of those negotiations will be a function of how much each side wants to get the deal done," Duncan says. "This is clearly a very political animal."

While the contents of the SEIS will play a crucial role in negotiations, the timing of its release could be even more critical. Federal law mandates a 30-day "cooling off" period following release of the report. During that time no decision on the future of the base can be announced. If the SEIS is released in the next several days, as some expect, a decision could be made public sometime between Christmas and the new year. Sources close to the process point out that most people are distracted during that time by the holidays and family affairs, which would provide cover for a presidential administration seeking to avoid major publicity and potential political problems resulting from whichever decision is made.

Uncertainties regarding who will be the next president -- and what difficulties he may face trying to govern -- could put added pressure on the Clinton administration to make a decision about Homestead before its term expires on January 20, 2001. Doing so during the holiday period could muffle the objections sure to be raised by one side or the other.

If one thing is absolutely certain, though, it is this: No matter which way the decision goes, the future of the base will be tied up in court for years to come. "If it is conveyed as a commercial airport in any form, there will be a lawsuit," Farago promises. Confirming that vow, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an activist environmental group based in New York City, says it is ready to go to court to block the proposed airport.

Likewise, if the federal government refuses to turn over the land to Miami-Dade County, both the county and HABDI could attack the decision through litigation. HABDI has an obvious financial incentive to do so. The company already has invested a substantial amount of money in the project, says attorney Ramon Rasco. "Over $5 million, probably well over $10 million," he estimates. "Whether it is $20 million or $30 million, I don't know."

Lost somewhere amid all the wrangling are the people of South Miami-Dade. "Homestead has been the most affected and the least influential in this entire process," complains Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver. "We didn't support the way Miami-Dade County gave away this base in a no-bid deal. We were pretty vocal against that, but again, nobody listened to us."

After the commissioners made their decision, however, Shiver supported efforts to move ahead with the HABDI plan for the good of the people in his community. "We need jobs," he says.

Supporters of the proposed airport say it will create more than 30,000 jobs, compared with about 23,000 under the Collier-Hoover plan. Shiver says he isn't persuaded by Collier-Hoover numbers. "They have not produced one feasibility or marketing study to support what their impact will be," he notes.

County Commissioner Katy Sorenson believes the real danger for the residents of South Miami-Dade isn't the difference between 23,000 and 30,000 jobs. The real danger is creating an airport that will jeopardize the quality of life for area residents. "I think there is a certain element that wants to promote a depressed attitude because they want to create the justification for an airport," she says. "That has been the strategy used by the big land owners in South Dade, the bankers who represent them, and the chamber people who are associated with them. They want to perpetuate an attitude: “Poor us, we'd better have an airport or we'll never get back on our feet economically.' The fact is that the alternative proposed by the Colliers and the Hoovers provides something that would happen so much faster."

Who Owns HABDI?

Since being awarded the no-bid deal in 1996, Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., has undergone changes in ownership, the biggest being the inclusion of a group known as Airport Acquisitions, Inc., which is owned by members of the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa. Airport Acquisitions now owns approximately 27 percent of HABDI, according to material the company provided the county in 1999.

The other major shareholders of HABDI are Carlos Herrera, former president of the Latin Builders Association (30 percent); Miami developer Pedro Adrian (18 percent); and American Logistics Services (16 percent). Others owning from one to three percent of the company include Manuel Romero, Jr., owner of Romero Lumber in South Miami-Dade; Augustine Ajagbe, a Nigerian-born security-firm owner; Armando Guerra, a principal in the Sedano's supermarket chain; and Augustin Herran, a real estate management executive. Even HABDI attorney Ramon Rasco is now a partner, owning about one percent of the company's stock, which he has taken in lieu of legal fees.

The inclusion of the Mas family in the deal has placed Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas in an awkward position, since the county continues to press its claims against Mas-owned Church & Tower regarding alleged overbilling on a county paving contract. In essence Penelas is arguing that one Mas-owned company cheated the county out of millions of dollars, but another Mas-owned company should be entrusted with a piece of property that could be critical to the county's future.

But even if Penelas wanted to back out of the county's agreement with HABDI, he would find it virtually impossible. The provisions of Miami-Dade's contract with the company are so restrictive, and the penalties for breaching it so severe, that it would likely cost the county tens of millions of dollars to remove HABDI.

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