Longform

The Thrill of the Hunt

Page 5 of 8

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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede