It was José Abreu’s last groundbreaking ceremony, and the owner of a company building a new hangar at Opa-locka Executive Airport waved him over to grab a gold-plated shovel and stand for the photo op.
But Abreu, director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, gently lifted his palm and shook his head. He remained in the wings, beaming and applauding. Afterward, a businessman came up to say hello.
“So sorry you’re leaving, from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
Abreu chuckled. “I’m not dying or anything!”
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What he is doing is retiring Friday after nearly eight years as chief of the county-owned Miami International Airport. Unlike his predecessor, who was pressured to leave, the county has repeatedly asked Abreu to stay.
“We’re going to be calling you,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan joked at the Opa-locka event.
His replacement, Emilio González, has been shadowing Abreu for a week, learning the basics before Abreu becomes senior vice president for the international engineering firm Gannett Fleming. González, the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was selected for the aviation job by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who did not conduct a national search for the high-profile position.
Abreu took the reins in 2005, plucked from his post as Florida Department of Transportation secretary two weeks after the county took over the beleaguered MIA North Terminal project from American Airlines. Abreu’s task: Complete the project, plagued by cost overruns and lawsuits.
“I showed up fat, dumb and happy,” he recalled. “It was helter skelter.”
He wrested the project under control. A new baggage-handling system and Skytrain to transport passengers across the concourse also have been completed. Fees airlines pay to land at MIA have gone down. The airport’s credit rating has gone up.
And, Abreu likes to say, the county’s five general-aviation airports, including Opa-locka and Kendall-Tamiami, are no longer losing money, avoiding a potential divorce with MIA. Big airlines had said MIA was being dragged down by those airports’ losses.
“The only thing I committed to was to give it everything I have,” Abreu said. “I did that.”
His dedication has received praise from people in the aviation business and politicians alike. In 2008, then-President-elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, considered appointing Abreu, a Republican, to a top position in the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“I cannot say he’s been anything but a pleasure to work with,” said Antonio Eiroa, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local 1542 union, which represents more than 800 aviation workers.
Eiroa’s main disagreement with Abreu has been over staffing — the union says the department needs more workers — but even then, both sides have spoken openly, he said.
Abreu, 58, left Cuba by himself when he was 13 to avoid getting drafted into Fidel Castro’s army. He took architectural drafting courses at Miami Springs Senior High School and was hired as a draftsman in the county’s public works department before he graduated as a civil engineer from the University of Miami. He still carries his 1976 UM student ID in his wallet.
Abreu said he was seduced by engineering when, at 10, he accompanied his father, a truck driver, to a bank that was being remodeled. A man sat in the center of the project with blueprints answering questions from the construction crew.
“I said, ‘How can you answer the question by looking at that?’ And he smiled and said, ‘Engineering,’ ” Abreu said.
While telling the anecdote, he started to cry. His father died four years ago.
“My dad put his arm around me and said, ‘If you learn engineering, you will never have to worry about paying your mortgage.’ ”
Abreu is a father himself, of two adult children, José and Marisa. His wife, Miriam, is PortMiami’s chief financial officer.
A natty dresser, Abreu has collected some 50 suits, he said, favoring Italian designer Ermenegildo Zegna. To the Opa-locka event, he wore a bespoke blue mohair suit, a white monogrammed shirt and a pink-and-blue Hermès tie.
Starting next week, Abreu plans to stay out of the spotlight, leaving González, 56, to fend for himself. Like Abreu, González’s annual salary will be $253,000.
From the get-go, González will have to deal with an ongoing shortage of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents at MIA, made more acute by federal budget cuts known as the sequester. There’s also an open investigation by the Miami-Dade inspector general and the state attorney’s office into alleged overbilling by the airport’s hotel operator, which has denied wrongdoing.
And at his first commission meeting Tuesday, González will have to wrestle with MIA’s controversial baggage-wrap concession. Commissioners will consider Gimenez’s vetoes of a contract the board awarded this month.
It will also fall to González to land the last project in Abreu’s legacy: Airport City, a $512 million private-public partnership to develop 33 acres around MIA. Politics have stalled the plans; several commissioners oppose hiring contractor Odebrecht USA because a subsidiary of its Brazilian parent company works in Cuba.
Abreu predicted González will also have to take on MIA’s taxi industry. Passengers often complain that customer service is “dismal,” Abreu said — taxis don’t accept credit cards, some drivers reject short trips — but the taxi drivers don’t work for the airport.
His advice to González: Resist the pressure from airlines and employee unions to borrow more money, hurting MIA’s credit rating. Partner with the private sector for future construction. And be very aware of the myriad federal regulations that govern aviation.
“We engineers have a saying: ‘Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was erected in the first place,’ ” Abreu said.
The last time he appeared before the board, on March 5, several commissioners told Abreu they were sorry it was his last meeting.
“I’m not,” he responded, with a grin.