Miami-Dade economic development chief faces bruising fight

An organization charged with reviving Miami-Dade’s battered economy finds itself with some bruises, too.

The Beacon Council, a non-profit that relies on tax dollars, is contending with a threat to its public funding, lukewarm support from County Hall and a rift within its own leadership. CEO Frank Nero faces a revolt from some board members, and the full board this month opted not to pass a motion expressing confidence in the Beacon Council’s management, according to several participants.

“Not everybody loves Frank,’’ said Joseph Pallot, the group’s volunteer chairman and general counsel at Heico Corp. But Pallot said Nero has performed well as the head of an organization that receives about $4 million a year in Miami-Dade taxes. “Frank’s economic-development skills are second to none.”

Nero, a former New Jersey municipal leader who earns about $400,000 a year, declined to comment. He has tussled with board members and elected officials in the past. But he now faces pressure on multiple fronts, with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wanting to revamp the county’s economic-development strategy, commissioners wanting to take away $1 million in tax funding and give it to local businesses, and some Beacon board members pushing for a change at the top.

“We have issues with the Beacon Council,” Gimenez said this week in an interview. “The commission also apparently has issues with the Beacon Council. We’re trying to work with them as best that we can.”

In his comments, Gimenez also said his concern was with the county’s “disjointed” approach to economic development, saying, “I’d like to kind of bring that all together.”

The Beacon Council’s primary mission is to recruit companies to Miami-Dade, serving as a go-between among corporate relocation firms and local agencies and helping line-up incentives and subsidies from county and state pools of money. It also pursues various economic efforts and promotions, including a year-long “One Community One Goal” study of how to grow the economy, and next month’s awards fundraising lunch aboard a cruise ship at Port Miami.

In the budget year that ended in September 2011, the Beacon Council received about $1.6 million from businesses paying dues, events and other private-sector sources, according to the most recent fianancial statement available.

Last year, the Beacon Council said it helped 27 businesses either expand in or move to Miami-Dade, accounting for about 2,000 new jobs. Among the big companies it helped land incentives for was the new cable network Univision is forming with the ABC national network in Doral.

But the Beacon Council’s public dollars have proved a ripe target, with commissioners complaining the money goes to recruit large companies to town that then compete with constituents’ smaller businesses.

Combined, the Beacon Council’s top eight executives make about $1.5 million a year, and during the recession the group spent about $1.5 million on a 2009 renovation of its rented Brickell Avenue office, according to tax filings and financial statement.

“When you’re trying to bring a CEO to Miami, you have to play the part that you’re a cosmopolitan, global city,’’ said Ana Acle-Menendez, head of communications for the Beacon Council. “That was the idea behind the renovation.”

She said the actual cost of construction was about $300,000 less thanks to a donation by a member and a landlord rebate. She also said the renovation saved the organization money by creating conference space; board meetings used to cost $15,000 each when the organization had to hold them in rented locations. The board had 200 people then; now it has about 60.

On Jan. 23, county commissioners unanimously approved a resolution urging the Beacon Council to take $1 million of its $4 million in public funding and award it directly to small businesses in the form of “mom-and-pop” grants. The vote followed a testy session in October when Commissioner Lynda Bell said she was treated “rudely and disrespectfully” in a private meeting with Nero and Pallot. She proposed renegotiating the county’s contract with the Beacon Council, though no action has been taken.

At the board meeting after the commission’s Jan. 23 vote, one Beacon Council director offered a motion “to support the Beacon Council and its management,’’ Pallot said. Discussion followed, and the board then decided not to vote. Pallot declined to release minutes of the meeting, but said the board thought the motion would not be helpful with commissioners. Board member Jack Lowell, a Nero critic, agreed.

“All it was going to do was throw gasoline on the fire with the commission,” Lowell said. “There are enough problems with some of the commissioners that you don’t need to make things worse.”

In the boardroom, Nero’s high-profile opposition to bringing casino resorts to downtown Miami helped ratchet up divisions over his performance, according to board members on both sides of the argument. When the gambling debate heated up in the fall of 2011, Nero was the first senior Miami-Dade official to warn against damage to the economy from casino resorts, which he called “vacuum cleaners” that could have a “chilling effect” on Miami’s downtown revival.

The comments reportedly angered Gimenez, who had been supportive of a proposal by Malaysia’s Genting Group to build a casino resort on the site of The Miami Herald’s downtown Miami headquarters. Alan Becker, Pallot’s predecessor as the Beacon chairman, suggested Wednesday that Nero’s critics are motivated by gambling interests.

“If you speak to anybody who is not a supporter of Frank, ask them ‘have you or your company been provided anything of value or promised anything of value from any of the major players in the gaming debate?’ ” said Becker, whose firm’s clients include racetrack casinos. “If they said no, I think some of them would be lying.”

His pointed comments capture the tension roiling the Beacon Council’s board, with past chairs this week sniping at each other over Nero’s performance.

Becker’s racetrack clients faced a severe threat from Genting’s proposed casino resort. Lowell, a commercial broker, supported Genting while serving as the Beacon chair in 2011, flying to Singapore at Genting’s expense to views its operations there. He said he also served as a paid consultant for the company during a historic preservation fight involving the Herald building.

Becker declined to say if he was referring to Lowell in his comments, but Lowell said the reference was obvious. Lowell criticized Becker for presiding over a contract extension for Nero last year without a more thorough vetting of compensation and other issues by the board.

“Alan basically engineered Frank’s three-year renewal,’’ Lowell said. “It was not my preference.”

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Chuck Rabin contributed to this report.

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