Miami-Dade officials are traveling to Paris in a bid to revive the idea of bringing a global aviation expo to the Miami area, this time using a remote airport so far west that much of it sits in Collier County.
Surrounded by the Everglades, the former Everglades Jetport was once the subject of an epic battle between environmentalists and Miami-Dade County, which wanted to build the world’s largest airport there. Now Miami-Dade wants to make it a staging ground for an international display of jet options for large buyers of aircraft, including foreign military. Long a pet project in Miami-Dade’s economic-development circles, the idea of a Miami Air Show would be to create the Western Hemisphere’s version of the popular Paris Air Show.
The original plan was to put the show in Homestead, but the Pentagon scuttled that scenario in 2011 when it rejected use of the runways at its semi-retired air base there. Without the base’s cooperation, county officials were left without a viable site to pursue.
On Tuesday, the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez revealed its favored alternative: the jetport, now known as the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport. It was the subject of a pitched environmental battle in the 1960s, when Miami-Dade wanted to build an airport there that would be large enough to serve the entire region. The plan ultimately died, but not before a 10,500-foot-long runway was constructed.
It now serves as an occasional training spot for commercial pilots, according to the county’s aviation department, which runs it. The facility itself has a single runway, and sits about 55 miles from downtown Miami.
Dade-Collier’s location in the Everglades promises to be a challenge. Past efforts to commercialize the facility, including a 2009 bid to explore drilling for oil there, have met resistance from conservation groups.
“The environmental impacts of that area are clear,” said Jonathan Ullman, a leader of the Sierra Club’s South Florida chapter. “That’s why the airport was stopped.”
In a statement released Tuesday night, a Gimenez spokesman highlighted the administration’s intention not to expand the air-show site into environmentally sensitive areas.
“If established the aerospace show will be modeled after the Paris Air Show and strictly confined to the area of the airfield that is already dedicated for aviation uses,” spokesman Michael Hernández said. “The show’s physical footprint will not extend into established wetlands.”
While “air shows” are best known for aerial acrobatics, the commercial aviation expo at Paris is more of a showroom for the jetliner-manufacturing industry. Large makers, like Boeing, pitch their products to large buyers, like India. With no major show in North or South America, Miami-Dade leaders see Miami’s central north-south location and international cachet as selling points for trying to start a show targeting buyers in the Americas.
But the plan was always seen as ambitious. Spearheaded by the Beacon Council, the county’s tax-funded economic-development arm, the show was supposed to debut in 2012. A year earlier, Beacon Council representatives reported they hadn’t signed a single manufacturer to commit to a Miami show. When the Pentagon said it couldn’t sign off on using the Homestead base for a commercial show, it essentially killed the plan.
With a new potential site, the Gimenez administration hopes to revive the concept. But administration officials also said Tuesday the Dade-Collier facility is being reviewed, and that officials haven’t yet concluded it would work as an air-show location. Still, in his statement, Hernández said the air show could arrive as early as 2017.
The site’s remoteness presents an obvious drawback compared to the Homestead option, since attendees would need to drive daily from hotels in the Miami area to see the jet exhibitions. The 25,000 acre property is just slightly closer to Miami than it is to Naples, which is about 63 miles away.
Even so, the airport isn’t idle. Greg Chin, a county aviation spokesman, said Dade-Collier sees an average of 12 landings and take-offs a day.
The remote site also brings a grim advantage when it comes to commercial air shows: plenty of uninhabited land should a plane crash. Miami-Dade officials have said in past interviews that the Homestead site was picked in part because the nearby Atlantic Ocean offered a similar escape option. The site’s 10,500-foot-long airstrip is also longer than three of the four runways at Miami International Airport, allowing aviation manufacturers to bring large planes.
Gimenez outlined the revived air show ambitions in a memo released Tuesday to county commissioners announcing an official trip to France coinciding with June’s Paris Air Show. Gov. Rick Scott will be at the show, as well, and Gimenez said the two of them will make joint appearances.
“Doing so will provide us with insights into bringing an aviation industry type of show to our community, which is an important economic development initiative for Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez wrote to Commission Chairman Jean Monestime, who was invited to join the delegation.
It’s not clear how much construction would be required at the Dade-Collier site to accommodate a global air show. In 2011, Miami-Dade earmarked $7.5 million to ready county-owned land by the Homestead base for the show. The money was never spent, thanks to the Pentagon’s ruling. Those dollars came from a $75 million economic-development fund that was fully assigned to other projects last year by Gimenez and county commissioners.
In past pitches for what was then billed as the Miami International Air Show, advocates described a major global event that was supposed to debut in 2012.
“This would be the most important show of its kind in the Americas,” read a May 2011 county memo to commissioners. Gimenez became mayor that summer after the recall of his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez.
The plan in 2011 was to hold the Miami show on even-numbered years to complement the odd-year schedule of the Paris show, which reports attendance of more than 300,000. That strategy might have changed, since Hernández’s statement described the possibility of a 2017 show in Miami.