The Thrill of the Hunt

Carlos Herrera stands in the family room of his Kendall home, encircled by the hauntingly vacant stares of more than two dozen dead animals. Herrera killed each of them -- deer, elk, caribou, moose, impala, buffalo. Twenty-eight animals in all, their heads cut off and stuffed, their eyes replaced with glass orbs, their range now restricted to the walls of a suburban home. Slipping off his tie and pouring a Heineken into a frosted mug the maid has just delivered, the president of the politically powerful Latin Builders Association describes how he began hunting in the Everglades over a decade ago as a way of socializing with other developers. Soon, however, Herrera found that the primordial appeal of the kill transcended business. "It shows what a man is made of," he says with a smile. "This is a challenge to me. This is when your manhood comes out. It's nature and you."

Since those early trips to the Everglades, he has gone on safari in Africa twice, and regularly hunts in Canada and South America. In addition, Herrera and a group of other investors own 1900 acres in Colorado -- a private game reserve. "It's absolutely beautiful," he says of the property, though recently he's been thinking about selling his share. "I got what I wanted out of the place." He grins and motions to one of his mounted trophies. "This is a royal crown elk. It was the biggest one caught in the past seven years." He gazes longingly at the animal. "That's a beauty of an elk. Twelve points." Pausing again, he seems lost in the memory of the hunt. "That's why I have it here, above the television, so all I have to do is just look up at it."

Continuing the tour, he points to a fallow deer whose antlers stretch out over the pool table (on top of which lies the striped hide of a zebra Herrera killed in South Africa nine years ago). "I spent a week tracking that deer in Argentina," he recalls, adding that his guide thought he was crazy to go after that particular animal -- a creature, to hear Herrera tell it, that had gained near mythic stature among local gamesmen. "The guide said no other hunter had been able to kill him," Herrera recounts, his chest swelling with pride. "So I said, 'That's why I want him.' I spent four hours crawling about 1500 yards on my stomach with a rifle to get a shot at that deer. I shot him at about 600 yards, which was a hell of a shot."

Between the elk and the deer is the massive head of a Cape buffalo, which Herrera brought down in Zambia during his second trip to Africa, in 1992. He had been tracking a small herd of buffalo and was preparing to shoot when his guide tapped him on the shoulder. A larger herd had circled behind them, and the guide was afraid that if Herrera fired, the animals to the rear would charge and all of them, including Herrera's eldest son (thirteen at the time), could be killed. But Herrera says he was undeterred. He told his son to crawl into a narrow trench as a precaution. Then he took aim at the largest buffalo in the rear herd. "I said, 'I don't care if I'm going to get killed, I'm taking the biggest one down,'" he boasts. "I shot him in the chest when he was about 60 yards away. He died about 25 yards in front of us."

The most striking exhibit in Herrera's lifeless menagerie is a fully stuffed leopard. As Herrera talks about the 110-pound cat he killed three years ago, he stands next to it, lightly stroking its tawny spotted coat as if he were petting the family dog. "You have to be very careful hunting these," he warns. "If you don't kill them with one shot, they'll go after you." The animal has been posed on a small platform, its paws resting on the throat of another animal. "That was a good trip," he says. "We got the leopard and the Cape buffalo both. I had wanted a lion, but we didn't get one. I saw a couple who were not big enough or nice enough for me to kill."

Despite his obvious affection for blood sport, Herrera has not been hunting in two years. He's been too busy stalking a trophy of a different sort. The 38-year-old Cuban immigrant now has his sights set on one of the biggest business deals in Dade County history -- an exclusive contract to convert portions of Homestead Air Force Base to civilian use.

Following Hurricane Andrew's destruction of the base in August 1992, community leaders scrambled to keep the federal government from closing the facility entirely. Their efforts were at least partially successful: U.S. Customs and the 482nd Fighter Wing of the Air Force Reserve were reinstated on about 900 acres of the 2900-acre base. The Department of Defense has since said it is willing to give the remaining 2000 acres to Dade County for development as it sees fit. (Included in the property are a terminal building, the control tower and accompanying runway, a golf course, and about 1000 acres of surrounding land.)

Twelve months ago county commissioners granted to Herrera the exclusive right to develop a plan for transforming the base into a private commercial enterprise. At the time, Herrera was little known outside Hialeah (where his business interests are centered), and he had not yet assumed the presidency of the Latin Builders Association. And so bestowing upon him this special status -- an unobstructed shot at what could be a financial bonanza -- took many people by surprise. His newly formed company, Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI, commonly referred to as hab-dee), could undertake the creation of a development plan secure in the knowledge that all potential competitors would be locked out. Officials from Homestead, the city most profoundly affected by such a decision, were shocked. They complained that no one had bothered to brief them regarding HABDI or its plans. They hadn't met with a single representative from the company. In fact, they didn't even know who Carlos Herrera was.

Commissioners were unmoved. Instead they hailed Herrera as an immigrant success story -- in twenty years he had gone from air-conditioning installer to millionaire developer. Commissioner Natacha Millan, a Herrera friend and ally, likened him to Wayne Huizenga, a self-made man of grit, courage, and vision.

With regard to the air base, Herrera's vision encompasses extensive development, including an airport that would quickly become a significant cargo facility and have long-term prospects as a major passenger terminal as well. He also plans at least two industrial parks, aviation maintenance operations, apartment complexes, shopping centers, and a refurbished golf course. To build all this, Herrera says, he will raise and spend some $260 million.

No one familiar with Herrera's proposal can confidently predict exactly what the project might be worth over the course of a lease that's expected to run 60 or 70 years, though some have placed the figure as high as two billion dollars. (Herrera will say only that in five to ten years, the development will be a "real money maker.") Likewise, no one is able to calculate what cost taxpayers might have to shoulder should HABDI's plans fall apart at some point.

Despite these uncertainties, the commission may be asked next week to approve a formal contract between HABDI and Dade County, a lease of public property for private profit unprecedented in its scope. At the very least commissioners are expected to ratify the general terms of such a lease, the details of which are still being negotiated. And with their vote they will set in motion a process that stands to have more impact on the economy of South Dade than anything before or since Hurricane Andrew.

Commissioners will also be expressing their confidence in Carlos Herrera personally. By granting to him such major influence over the future of valuable public assets, they will, in effect, be endorsing his moral character and business ethics. Carlos Herrera, they will be saying to the public, is a straight shooter.

A few weeks ago, during an interview in his Hialeah office, Herrera bristled at the mention of John Grace, his former rival for the development of Homestead Air Force Base. (Before commissioners ordered the county manager's staff to negotiate exclusively with Herrera, Grace had been conducting a very public exploration of possibilities for the base's future.) According to Herrera, Dade County should be grateful it's now dealing with him and not the likes of Grace, who is the nephew of the late Peter Grace, a legendary international businessman and head of the multibillion-dollar W.R. Grace Company.

Speaking of the nephew, Herrera said derisively, "This was a guy who everything was handed to him." During one of his three meetings with Grace last fall, Herrera recalled asking how he made his money. "I sell paper," Grace responded, according to Herrera.

Herrera said he was confused. "Can you explain that?" he asked. Grace then described his dealings in the stock market and his other business ventures. "What you sell are ideas," Herrera responded. "You use your name to sell those ideas to investors." And then Herrera said he asked contemptuously: "Do you feel proud about that?"

Herrera shook his head at the memory of the conversation, and stated that for a man to earn respect, he must build something that can be seen or touched, something that provides jobs for men supporting families. There could be little pride in simply shuffling stocks and bonds for profit.

But Herrera wasn't finished with the subject of John Grace. He was eager to tell the tale of their final meeting, a dramatic encounter with an explosive conclusion -- not unlike one of Herrera's armed adventures in the bush.

It took place this past October 18. Herrera and former state representative Miguel DeGrandy, his attorney and lobbyist, had driven up to West Palm Beach to meet with Grace and one of his partners, Wiley Reynolds. From Herrera's viewpoint, the meeting was simply the last in a series of courtesy calls, nothing more. Three months earlier, when county commissioners voted to grant Herrera exclusive rights to the air base, they also suggested he meet with Grace, who had already spent nearly two years working on his own plan. Perhaps Herrera would be interested in taking on Grace as a partner.

The men met in the boardroom of the First National Bank, and from the outset, Herrera said, he sensed that Grace and Reynolds were behaving in a condescending manner. "This big company comes in and says, 'Who the hell is Carlos Herrera?'" he recalled. "I was put down. And it's true, who am I? So I had to explain myself to them."

According to Herrera, Grace listened warily, then let it be known he wouldn't be interested in a partnership. Herrera claimed these were Grace's exact words: "My family cannot do business with minorities."

As Herrera repeated the phrase -- "My family cannot do business with minorities" -- he became visibly agitated. "I would have taken that from Peter Grace," he said angrily, "but not from this asshole."

Herrera recounted that he became incensed, furious. As a Cuban American his pride would not allow him to spend another minute in the same room with this man. He said he stared icily across the table at Grace and declared, "This minority does not do business with assholes like you. I work for my money. It was not handed to me." And with a smug smile, he added, "Then I got up and left."

Upon request, Herrera happily retold the entire story, but in the second version, Grace's words changed slightly: "My company cannot do business with minorities." No problem, Herrera responded when the discrepancy was pointed out to him. He quickly dialed Miguel DeGrandy on his speaker phone. What were Grace's exact words, Herrera asked his attorney. A long pause ensued. "I can't recall," DeGrandy said cagily.

"You can't remember if it was 'family' or 'company'?" Herrera asked.
"I can't recall," DeGrandy repeated, and then quickly changed the subject.
No matter, Herrera maintained, the point still stood. Whichever word he used, John Grace did not deserve to do business in Dade County.

From his office in New York, Grace provided a dramatically different recollection of that October 18 meeting. The atmosphere was cordial, he said, but it became clear the two sides weren't interested in joining forces. "We just agreed we couldn't do anything together," Grace recalled. "We exchanged pleasantries and then he left."

Upon hearing Herrera's version of events, Grace initially laughed. "That doesn't make sense," he said. "It's totally untrue. The Grace family got started as a multinational company in Peru. We are a Latin American company." His own wife is Costa Rican, he noted with increasing indignation. Carlos Herrera even met her. Then: "That is a terrible thing to say about anybody. We never had any harsh words or anything. This thing never got to a personal level. That is ludicrous. Call Wiley Reynolds, ask him."

Reynolds was equally incredulous. "I was at the meeting and none of that occurred," he stated firmly.

In their defense, both Grace and Reynolds referred to Roy Phillips, president of the Homestead campus of Miami-Dade Community College. Early in their efforts to create a plan for redeveloping the air base, they contacted Phillips, who is black. "They asked me to serve on their board of directors," Phillips confirmed. "When they [Grace and Reynolds] started, the first thing they did was come to the minority community. They made it clearly known they wanted to involve everybody." Phillips said it was inconceivable that either Grace or Reynolds would make such a bigoted statement. "These are fine gentlemen," Phillips said. "I can't fathom that. I have no idea why Carlos Herrera would make a statement like that."

Miguel DeGrandy, in a later interview independent of Herrera, said that in his opinion, the meeting never became hostile, and he reiterated that he did not recall Grace making any derogatory statements about minorities. "There could have been times I wasn't in the room," he says, searching for a way out of this dilemma. DeGrandy however acknowledges that he and Herrera left the meeting at the same time and he never heard Herrera call Grace an "asshole."

A few minutes after the phone interview with DeGrandy ended, Herrera called to explain that in fact he did not call Grace an asshole. "I was telling you my personal opinion," he said, "that I thought he was an asshole." However, he did not modify his recollection of Grace's inflammatory comment about not working with minorities.

"He [Herrera] is playing the race card. But why?" asked Reynolds. "As far as we're concerned he's got the deal. He's got the right of first refusal. I don't know why he would bring this up."

"Sounds like the deal must not be in good shape," Grace added, speculating that Herrera may be trying to elicit sympathy from the commission's Hispanic majority in an effort to gain the most favorable terms for HABDI.

His use of the "race card" may have been coldly calculated or impulsively spontaneous. And it may or may not be revelatory of his business ethics. But those who know Herrera would agree that winning A whether it be a business deal or a bull's-eye at 600 yards A is a virtual obsession.

He was born in Marianao, a working-class town just outside Havana. His mother was a beautician. His father, who operated a taxi business, walked out on the family when Carlos was only a month old.

Mother and son came to the United States in 1964, when Carlos was seven years old, and settled in Hialeah. Every morning Herrera's mother was up at 4:00 a.m. to catch a bus that would take her to a tomato-processing plant near Homestead. Carlos worked as well. His first job, at age nine, was delivering the Miami Herald. When he was fifteen, he hired on with an air-conditioning company; the work was hard but the money made it worthwhile. "I realized right away that this was a good business to be in," he recalls. "Air conditioning in Florida is a necessity, not a luxury."

By the time he graduated from Hialeah High in 1974, he had both a vocation and a fiancee. He married Herminia Remedios when he was eighteen and launched his own air-conditioning business a year later. Herrera invested nearly all the young couple's savings in the new venture, with most of it going to the purchase of a used van for $1800. He called his operation Local Air Conditioning.

Herrera figured he and his wife could survive a month or two on what they had left in the bank, but he fully expected to attract work sooner than that. "It never crossed my mind that I wouldn't succeed," he says. "When people are sleeping and you're still working, you are going to make it." As he built a reputation for high-quality work, he was recruited to install the air ducts and cooling units for more and more Hialeah office buildings and housing developments. Today Local Air has about 70 employees, and produces between seven and eight million dollars in revenue per year, according to Herrera.

But he had ambitions beyond being the guy hired by developers to install their air conditioning. He wanted to be the developer. In 1984 he got his chance, having secured a $500,000 loan from Ready State Bank to build, along with Roberto Curbelo, 152 homes in the Mango Hills neighborhood of Hialeah. "We made good money on that deal," Herrera says. The two men split $1.5 million in profit, he explains, and he rolled his share into another deal, and then another.

Roberto Cayon is the president of Hialeah-based Ready State Bank and the man who took that early chance on Herrera. "We knew Carlos for many, many years," offers Cayon, himself a developer. "I've seen Carlos grow from the time he was a kid. He and his mother lived in an apartment building I owned. He started from scratch. He's a hard-working man. You can tell the guy is going to pay."

In the last ten years, Herrera has built and sold more than 700 homes. He has also constructed more than twelve apartment complexes, as well as a dozen warehouses and storage facilities. He's become a veritable conglomerate of nearly a dozen companies, some of which buy land, some of which build, and others of which manage the more than 600 rental units he owns, mostly in and around Hialeah. His rents run from $550 for one bedroom to $650 for two bedrooms. With a vacancy rate of only about two percent, his apartments alone bring in another four to five million dollars each year.

At least once a month Herrera visits each of his buildings. On one recent outing, he spent more than an hour cruising around northwest Hialeah in his silver Mercedes 500SL, his right index finger in almost constant motion as he pointed out homes and apartments he's built. Nine years ago, when he first came to this part of Hialeah beyond the Palmetto Expressway, he says it was nothing but cows and scrub brush, a rural setting no one imagined suitable for development. No one except Herrera, that is. He bought 70 acres at $80,000 per acre. Today land in the area is now selling for more than twice that amount.

"That was the first house we built," he says from his car. "And then that one and that one." Herrera sold them for $70,000; now, he says with pride, the owners are reselling them for $100,000 or more. His apartment buildings stand out as well -- they appear neat and well maintained.

Herrera won't reveal his net worth or yearly income (the latter, he notes, varies depending on the projects he has going). He is aware, though, that his wealth has been the subject of speculation in some circles -- specifically that he earned his money through drug trafficking or gun running. "There are a lot of rumors," he acknowledges dismissively. "It's jealousy." However, those rumors are also due in part to Herrera's relatively quick rise to prominence, coupled with skepticism that an empire could be built on air conditioners. And of course South Florida has seen its share of shooting stars, men who burst onto the scene with bundles of cash and little history. But Herrera maintains he is no overnight success, and he's not suddenly going to flame out. "I see in Homestead the opportunity I saw in Hialeah," he says with confidence.

John Grace and Wiley Reynolds also saw opportunity in the Homestead area. Almost immediately after Hurricane Andrew, they began meeting with officials in South Dade to discuss their evolving idea that the devastated air base might be developed privately. The basics of their plan called for the federal government to give a portion of the base to Dade County, which would then sell that property to a company Grace had formed, the South Dade Coalition for Reconstruction. The company, in turn, would raise money for development through a public stock offering. South Dade residents would be encouraged to buy shares in the company.

"This was going to be a community-sensitive privatization of a state-owned asset," Grace says. "It wasn't going to be a John Grace company; it was going to be a Homestead community company. If we owned five to ten percent after the community offering, we would have been lucky." This approach, Grace notes, is similar to that employed by some communities when a key company is threatened with closure. Rather than allow the business to shut down and throw people out of work, the employees and their neighbors pool resources to purchase the enterprise. Homestead officials in particular seemed eager to consider the feasibility of Grace's proposal.

Carlos Herrera's interest in the air base blossomed nearly a year and a half later, and even then his ideas were much more modest than those being pursued by Grace and Reynolds. In early 1994 he put together a plan in which his new company, HABDI, would lease 106 acres of base land and construct a maintenance and paint facility for cargo planes.

On July 11, 1994, the county commission's aviation committee met to receive a briefing from county staff regarding both HABDI's and Grace's tentative plans for the air base. Billed only as a "status report," no definitive action was anticipated at the meeting. But almost immediately Commissioner Natacha Millan made it clear she was offended that the local group, HABDI, wasn't being given the opportunity to develop the entire base. "We're not giving them the due respect," she declared, referring to Herrera and his partners.

County staffers attempted to explain that HABDI had never expressed an interest in developing anything more than the 106 acres, but Millan persisted. In fact, she prompted Virgilio Perez, a HABDI vice president, to assert that HABDI now wanted the entire project. "HABDI is a local company with enough strength to handle this 106 acres plus the whole base if given the opportunity," Perez said.

And at that moment the meeting took a dramatic turn. Instead of analyzing the two preliminary proposals, commissioners passionately began to debate the merits of supporting local, minority-owned businesses. Suddenly, even though a vote had never been envisioned, Commissioner James Burke (who has since become a notable Herrera booster) presented a motion to grant HABDI the exclusive right to create a development plan for Homestead Air Force Base. Millan quickly seconded.

John Grace and Wiley Reynolds, who were present at the committee meeting, couldn't believe what they were hearing. The push for HABDI appeared to have been scripted. And a majority of the commissioners in attendance openly acknowledged they hadn't even read the plan Grace and Reynolds submitted. "Please," Reynolds pleaded, "at least read our proposal before you vote."

County aviation director Gary Dellapa also tried to slow down the commissioners. He told them his staff wasn't prepared for a motion like this, that they would like more time to study their alternatives. "The discussion today went a lot farther than I expected it to," he said nervously. He even suggested the commission might want to open up the process and formally invite proposals from a number of firms, locally and nationally. But the measure passed the committee unanimously.

Three days later the resolution passed by the aviation committee came before the full commission for consideration. Giving exclusive development rights to a Hispanic firm would be an important test of political power, especially in light of the enormity of the project. Only a year earlier district elections had radically altered the makeup of the commission. Rather than having just one seat on the dais, as they had previously, Hispanics now constituted six of thirteen votes. Blacks, who similarly had had just one representative, now had four.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, an African American whose South Dade district includes the air base, expressed his skepticism: "Now, at the last minute, we are rolling in here with a proposal to develop the whole base. And folks in South Dade don't even know what's going on. I've got some serious concern about this." But Natacha Millan again came to Herrera's aid. She reminded her colleagues that just 48 hours earlier they had voted to assist Wayne Huizenga in his efforts to build a huge entertainment complex. "I think we can take the same chance we took on Mr. Wayne Huizenga and perhaps take a chance on Mr. Carlos Herrera," she said.

Herrera prevailed. The vote was unanimous. And the door was slammed shut on any competing interests.

A year later John Grace and Wiley Reynolds are still reeling. "HABDI walked in and had no plan for developing the whole base and it was handed to them in a flash," Reynolds says in disbelief. "The commission wouldn't even consider an offer we made to invest $60 million and eliminate the need for the county to put any taxpayer money into the base."

In Reynolds's view, Dade County is jeopardizing its long-term financial health by discouraging outside investors. The manner in which commissioners handled the air base issue, he predicts, will only serve to scare away businesses thinking of moving to South Florida. "I don't know why anyone on the outside would even have any interest in doing business in Dade County," he says with disgust. "I saw how this county works and I'm appalled by it."

In the months following the commission's July 14, 1994, decision, Herrera put together the broad outlines of his plan for developing the base. He pledged five million dollars of his own money and said he expected to raise another $255 million from investors. He also began hiring talent.

Among those he recruited to his team as a consultant is Alan Rubin, former vice president of special operations for the Beacon Council, Dade's public-private business-development organization. Rubin was the author of a 1993 county-financed report that examined options for rebuilding and developing Homestead Air Force Base. Herrera also hired Dick Judy, Dade County's former aviation director, to provide advice regarding airport matters. "He's no bullshit," Herrera says of the willful and controversial Judy. "He's my type of guy."

When Herrera's plan came before commissioners this past December, the momentum in favor of endorsing it was overwhelming, even though it lacked detail. Only Katy Sorenson, who had been elected to the commission just a few weeks earlier, voted against the proposal, arguing fruitlessly that the development rights should be bid competitively. The commission then instructed the county manager to begin negotiating a formal lease agreement. Since then Herrera and the county have gone back and forth in proposing their own versions of a contract.

Assistant County Attorney Gail Fels describes the negotiations to date as "bizarre." Until this past week, for example, the county attorney's staff has been excluded from recent meetings between HABDI representatives and the county manager's office. "In any other deal I've been involved with," Fels notes, "the attorney sits in on all sessions." A number of important issues reportedly remain unresolved, but some commissioners are expected to push for intensified negotiations in order that preliminary approval might be granted next week, before the commission takes its August recess.

"What's the big rush?" asks Chris Spaulding, head of a group called Concerned Citizens of South Dade, which favors a competitive bidding process for the air base's development. "Why are they trying to shove this plan down the taxpayers' throats? They put together a political deal and now they are trying to cram it through."

Spaulding and his allies maintain an abiding suspicion of almost everything related to Herrera's advantageous position. For instance, HABDI initially agreed to guarantee 25 percent black participation in the project, and to give preference to South Dade firms seeking construction and other related contracts. Yet neither of these provisions has appeared in early HABDI drafts of the lease agreement. "HABDI has not been willing to put those issues in a legally binding contract. If it's not in the lease, then there is nothing that is going to make HABDI comply with these goals," says Spaulding, who works as a real estate appraiser and broker.

He is also critical of what he considers to be HABDI's skimpy financial commitment as proposed in drafts of the contract: eight million dollars in the first five years. In addition, Spaulding points out that if HABDI gets its way, the company will be able to use taxpayer dollars to develop a private golf course that would be closed to the public. And he claims the county would be liable for close to $300 million in infrastructure improvements under HABDI's version of a lease. (County officials put the figure at $160 million.)

Also under the terms of HABDI's proposed lease, the county would be responsible for any environmental cleanup not completed by the federal government. (The air force has agreed to clean the base to state and federal standards, but county officials acknowledge that the county's own standards may be more stringent, particularly if the site includes apartments.)

According to attorney George Knox, who has represented Concerned Citizens of South Dade, Dade County is in a poor bargaining position. If the county rejects HABDI's proposal because the two sides cannot agree on the terms of a lease, it could be seen as an affront to the Cuban-American community. Politically, Knox argues, it's also clear that Carlos Herrera has a solid block of commissioners who appear willing to lend their support to nearly any lease that's brought before them. "HABDI doesn't have to make many compromises," he says. "They have the supreme confidence that they have the deal. It's already a done deal."

HABDI is also demanding that it be given a management agreement under which the county would pay the company to operate a new Homestead airport. According to critic Spaulding, that makes no sense. No other county airport -- Miami International, Tamiami, Opa-locka -- is operated under a management agreement. "I can't understand why Dade County is even considering a management agreement," Spaulding says. "The county is talking about laying off hundreds of employees. Why don't we simply use some of the staff we have to operate the facility?"

Spaulding adds that HABDI's own aviation adviser, Dick Judy, has stated publicly that the county won't need a second airport to relieve Miami International for twelve to fifteen years. Again, Spaulding asks, what's the rush?

Herrera responds that he needs to move quickly because he is already negotiating with several major airport-related businesses. "I've got tenants lined up," he claims. The most persistent speculation holds that Federal Express will be his anchor tenant, and Homestead will become a hub for its overnight deliveries to Latin America. Company spokesmen will not comment about such possibilities, but this past May FedEx chairman Frederick Smith, in an interview with the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, said, "We intend to expand our operations significantly in Miami. We are looking at the use of Homestead. It might be a good operation for a mini-hub."

While Herrera would probably be heralded as a hero in South Dade if he could sign up FedEx, some of his other options could be met with much less enthusiasm, especially if certain terms in HABDI's proposed lease are accepted by the county. Specifically, HABDI is asking for the freedom to sell to other companies portions of its development rights, in effect allowing instant profits without having made any investments.

HABDI consultant Alan Rubin maintains a close association with a firm that is very likely to have just such an interest. The company, the Galesi Group, is based in New York and acted as a consultant to Rubin when he prepared the Beacon Council's air base report for the county commission. "Let's not kid ourselves," Rubin says cautiously. "This is a very real process. Carlos Herrera and the HABDI team intend to be the developers. If they [Galesi or other potential investors] can help, then it would be smart to go out and get them."

Given their strongly expressed sentiments favoring a local developer, it's unclear how commissioners would react if HABDI were to sell its privileges to outsiders. But that potential problem is minor compared to a situation that could scuttle Herrera's plans altogether.

This past March, after much concerted lobbying by local officials and civic leaders, the Department of Defense announced that the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) would relocate to Dade County from Panama. If SOUTHCOM's commanders decide they want to set up shop at the Homestead Air Force Base, they undoubtedly will be given the property, which is still controlled by the federal government. (SOUTHCOM officials are expected to announce their decision within days.)

In the face of that threat, Herrera has been active in Washington as well. He has met with Air Force officials and has struck up a friendship with Sen. Edward Kennedy. (The two have met on several occasions recently and Herrera attended a private fundraiser in Kennedy's honor.) The senator is a Democrat and Herrera is a Republican, but Kennedy is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and could prove to be a powerful ally as Pentagon officials decide precisely where SOUTHCOM will be located.

That Herrera is mounting such an all-out effort should come as no surprise. "You have those who try hard," he says, "and those who try hardest. I'm not a brain surgeon. I'm not a super-intelligent guy. I never have been. But I always believed that if you work hard, you will succeed. I've not failed so far. So I don't see why I would fail now.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede