Longform

The Thrill of the Hunt

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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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede