A developer renting county land at the Opa-locka airport claims he’s missed out on favorable treatment offered to competitors with stronger political connections.
In a complaint filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, developer Ernesto Cambo points to $5 million county grants awarded to other Opa-locka tenants — including Turnberry, a top donor to Mayor Carlos Gimenez and county commissioners — but not to his business, Ave LLC.
And he claims unfair treatment over the $10 million transfer fee he must pay to sell a chunk of his 180-acre lease to an investor as part of a long-running effort to open a new private-jet terminal at the airport. Ave already rents a distribution facility to the U.S. Post Office there, along with smaller operations that include a jet repair shop. The lease runs to 2074, Cambo said.
Cambo notes no transfer fee was paid this summer when the foundation headed by former congresswoman Carrie Meek shifted its Opa-locka lease to a partnership with a for-profit entity for a long-delayed effort to build a warehouse at the county-owned airport.
“It is clear that what is good for a long-time elected official, politician and community leader who has done absolutely nothing with her lease for eight years is not good enough for a successful developer,” the complaint states.
It is clear that what is good for a long-time elected official, politician and community leader who has done absolutely nothing with her lease for eight years is not good enough for a successful developer.
FAA complaint by developer Ernesto Cambo
The Oct. 24 complaint seeks FAA intervention in Cambo’s dispute with the county, including an order that he be granted the same terms as other commercial tenants at the airport.
Emilio González, head of the county’s aviation department, which includes Miami International Airport, said the complaint was baseless, frivolous and an attempt by Cambo to avoid a contractual obligation as he tries to cash out of his Opa-locka lease by selling 75 percent of the agreement covering undeveloped land.
“He signed it,” González said of Cambo’s 2008 lease. “He doesn’t like it … But we’re not going to waive the fee.”
Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández called the suit a bid to trumpet baseless allegations less than two weeks before the mayor faces reelection on Nov. 8. “This is a tenant who is attempting to avoid paying a contractually obligated $10 million transfer fee to Miami-Dade County,” he said. “That is very unfortunate.”
González said the transfer fees are designed to discourage Opa-locka tenants from flipping valuable leases, and that the Meek Foundation scenario is not an appropriate comparison. The charity this summer won commission approval to assign its lease to a for-profit arm of the charity and an Orlando developer planning to build a 900,000-square-foot warehouse for Amazon.com.
Since the original Meek deal contemplated recruiting a developer, and the Meek group retains control of the property, González and other aviation officials said the transfer penalty doesn’t apply. “They’re not transferring it,” Greg Owens, head of real estate for the aviation department, said of the Meek lease. “If the Meek Foundation was relinquishing its involvement in the property, [the fee] would be in play.”
The dispute stems from Cambo’s failure to build a private-jet terminal for Banyan Air, which already has a successful operation in Fort Lauderdale and is eying Opa-locka for expansion. Banyan signed a deal with Cambo in 2010, valued at $40 million over 20 years, to lease a facility that Ave would build at the Opa-locka airport.
The claims in this complaint are baseless and without merit, and we will vigorously refute them through the FAA’s administrative process.
Emilio González, director, Miami-Dade aviation department
Cambo says the $10 million transfer fee makes the deal financially unfeasible. He also contends the Banyan deal would have received a crucial boost with the $5 million grant that Miami-Dade gave initial approval to for the Meek project, Turnberry’s terminal and a similar facility controlled by prominent banker Leonard Abess. Both Turnberry, which owns the Aventura Mall and Fontainebleau Resort, and Abess are significant donors in county races.
Turnberry has donated more than $300,000 to Gimenez and County Commission candidates since 2012, while Abess and the corporate entities he backs have given about $80,000, according to a Miami Herald analysis of campaign-finance reports. Campaign records show Cambo has given at least $5,000 to county candidates, including $3,000 to Gimenez.
Cambo’s complaint touches on a particularly heated debate in the County Commission, where the Gimenez administration sought to jumpstart a $75 million economic-development fund tacked onto a $2.9 billion bond issue that voters approved in 2004. In 2014, the mayor recommended a string of projects for approval, including the Meek effort, Abess’ Orion private-jet facility and Ave’s Banyan Air terminal.
But when the grant proposals met with resistance on the commission, Gimenez withdrew his recommendation for most of the original projects, including Ave and Orion. But Meek retained the mayor’s support. (The Turnberry grant request came in 2015, and Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said Wednesday he did not think the mayor endorsed that one, either.)
Each project had a commission sponsor, and the 13-member board gave initial approval to most of the grant applications after Gimenez walked back from the proposals. A major exception was Ave, who saw its $5 million request killed by a committee vote on Oct. 14, 2014.
Alex Heckler, a lobbyist for Turnberry, objected to Ave receiving the $5 million grant when county commissioners first considered the proposals in 2014. Heckler told commissioners the money would subsidize bringing in competition to existing terminal operators at Opa-locka.
“They’re not bringing in customers,” Heckler said of Ave. “They’re bringing in competition.”
None of the grants has received final approval by the County Commission; they’re designed to reimburse infrastructure costs tied to extending roads, utilities and sewer facilities into new projects.
In an interview, Cambo said he does not see a level playing field at Opa-locka.
“The crux of it is there are different rules for different people,” he said. “They’re picking winners and losers. They’re trying to slow me down.”