Longform

The Thrill of the Hunt

Page 7 of 8

"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."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede