In the home stretch of a 20-year political career, Tomás Regalado is hustling to the finish line.
With just four months left in his final term and legacy on his mind, the mayor of Miami is loading whatever politics will allow onto the November ballot in order to accomplish as much as possible before leaving office. A new theme park hotel, around $100 million in marina upgrades, long-term contracts to redevelop prime waterfront land and a quarter-billion in public works projects are all on the agenda.
It’s an ambitious plan for a lame-duck administration.
To get it all passed, he’ll need city commissioners and voters to support roughly $1 billion in public and private spending, some of which has received scant public vetting. He’ll also need voters to waive a charter requirement for competitive bids on three high-profile pieces of property in order to execute a series of lease extensions still lacking some critical financial details.
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“We’ve done this in good faith for the next administration because this administration won’t have time to complete these deals or get the money,” Regalado said in an interview, dismissing the significance of most of the ballot initiatives to his lasting memory as mayor. “It’s just a proposal. If it doesn’t go through then it doesn’t go through.”
We’ve done this in good faith for the next administration
Mayor Tomás Regalado
The next few weeks will decide what makes it to the voters, starting with Thursday’s City Commission meeting.
Among the items that could make the ballot:
▪ Regalado says his top priority is to see the commission and public pass a $275 million “Miami Forever” general obligation bond issue. The mayor wants to use a significant portion of the money — leveraged with a new property tax — to begin bracing the city for rising seas.
The specific projects to be funded by the bond, however, remain unknown.
Following weeks of community meetings around the city, his administration last week released a $1.3 billion menu of potential projects in order to allow commissioners to select what would receive funding. That process is expected to happen during the final commission meeting in July before the city takes an August recess — running the risk of a repeat of last summer’s events when, citing lack of preparation, commissioners voted against putting the bond issue on the ballot.
▪ The mayor’s administration is also pushing forward an encore effort of a controversial plan to redevelop two public marinas on Virginia Key north of the Rickenbacker Causeway. Three teams submitted bids in May, and City Manager Daniel Alfonso has recommended that the city approve an $80 million plan offered by a group effort between Suntex Marinas and last year’s would-be winner RCI Group.
The timing is iffy. A protest of the award by the current operator (and second-ranked bidder) won’t be heard until July 20, making it likely that commissioners would have to agree to hold a special August meeting in order to get the project on the ballot under a charter requirement that long-term leases of waterfront land go to referendum.
▪ Administrators are rushing to finalize the details of a complicated, 90-year arrangement to lease the riverfront land that currently hosts the Miami Riverside Center administrative hub to a developer planning a $465 million mixed-use complex on the site and land it owns next door. Complicating the deal, Adler Group would also need to build a new city headquarters elsewhere — for instance, on city land next to Marlins Park.
Commissioners’ insistence on hiring a special real estate attorney to help fine-tune the agreement delayed negotiations, and it’s still unclear if the details will be completed in time. But Alfonso, the city manager, says he remains hopeful.
▪ Three more lease agreements could end up on the ballot if commissioners agree to ask voters to waive bidding requirements for new agreements sought by the owners of Monty’s Raw Bar and Marina in Coconut Grove, Jungle Island and the Hyatt Regency on the Miami River. Such a waiver would give commissioners the authority to approve the proposed contracts through a super-majority.
Aligned Bayshore Marina, the owner of the Monty’s complex, wants to extend its lease until 2067 and invest $7 million on upgrades to the sprawling upland complex and an existing marina. It would pay an extra $200,000 a year.
Hyatt executives are seeking to extend their Hyatt Regency agreement by 99 years in order to redevelop their Miami River hotel and the James L. Knight Center under an agreement with a base rent of $2 million.
And after publicly saying they would wait years to push for a hotel on their newly acquired property, ESJ Capital Partners, the new owners of Jungle Island, are suddenly pushing to build a $50 million hotel of up to 300 rooms and extend their lease until 2099.
Alfonso, who says he and his staff won’t stop working because of a looming election to name a new mayor, acknowledges that the agenda could be seen as overly ambitious. But he says “a lot of these projects have been worked on for a very long time.
“These aren’t projects that just came up yesterday.”
Still, some important details remain unresolved.
Administrators are waiting to receive appraisals proving that the contracts proposed for Monty’s, Jungle Island and the Hyatt would bring back fair market value — a requirement under the charter. A requested financial analysis comparing the Hyatt and Jungle Island hotel agreements is also outstanding.
It also remains unclear what Jungle Island’s “boutique hotel” and Hyatt’s master plan would look like, since plans have not been submitted, nor details discussed. The Hyatt, under its agreement, must work with the city to develop a master plan.
Joe Carollo, the former mayor credited for a referendum requirement under the charter on the long-term lease and sale of waterfront land, has come out blasting the convergence of real estate deals. In an interview, he accused Regalado of an 11th hour “fire sale.”
“This is the kind of thing you only see in a banana republic. This is an administration on their way out and they’re pushing all this at the last moment,” said Carollo, who will be on the ballot himself as a City Commission candidate. “How dare they say these aren’t sweetheart deals that they’re doing on the way out?”
It seems like we’re holding a fire sale on Mr. Regalado’s way out the door
Joe Carollo, former mayor
Carollo has been particularly critical of the proposed development agreement with new Jungle Island owner ESJ Capital Partners, which would pay to the city just 1 percent of their gross hotel sales. But that detail was already set out in a 2008 lease amendment, says Eli Mimoun, ESJ’s chief operating officer. Alfonso said the hotel has to be able to help cover deferred payments kicked down the road when previous ownership was unable to cover its debts.
“The bottom line is we took the park from previous owners who were losing money and we’re willing to take a risk and invest considerable amounts of funds to improve the park and location, and part of that plan is a hotel,” Mimoun said.
The next few weeks will determine what, if anything, gets onto the November ballot, starting Thursday, when commissioners will decide whether to have the city attorney prepare ballot language to allow commissioners to execute lease amendments for the Hyatt Regency, Jungle Island and Monty’s.
Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes all three properties, as well as the Rickenbacker marina, hasn’t come out against any of the proposals but worries about “voter fatigue” should so many items be put to referendum on a ballot that will also feature a mayor’s race and, for many voters, a commission election. He’s also pushed to carve out a section of the Hyatt and Knight Center site for park space, something that currently isn’t in the proposed agreement.
Commissioner Frank Carollo, the brother of the former mayor, said he’s still reviewing the proposals but stressed he won’t vote for anything that isn’t fully vetted.
“I will not be in favor of rushing any of these long-term projects when you’re talking about leases for many, many years to come,” he said. “The amount of money that we’re talking about — I’m not going to rush anything.”
Complicating matters, despite Thursday’s votes, the three lease extensions would still need to come back to commissioners to approve ballot language, meaning their final meeting in July could be jammed with a half-dozen ballot proposals and financial packages. They’ll also be tasked with haggling over what projects would be funded under the general obligation bond should they wish to submit a detailed list to the public.
Regalado has identified the bond issue as a legacy-defining initiative critical to the city’s future. The rest of the projects, he said, are merely about improving the city’s finances.
“My priority is the bond issue because it is something we needed to do for the future,” he said. “But if the commission chooses not to place [the other] items on the ballot, well I hope that the next commission and the next mayor and the next administration look at bringing more money into the city.”