Miami International Airport closed for three days during Hurricane Irma, and shops, restaurants and other businesses operating there want a rent break through 2018 to recover their lost revenue.
In a Sept. 18 letter to MIA director Emilio González, the companies behind Cafe Versailles, News Link, Super Shuttle and other well-known airport vendors asked for a waiver of minimum rent requirements at the county-owned facility. Instead, the businesses would be allowed to pay fixed rent, even if the amounts fell below the minimum requirements in their leases.
“The immediate sales decline for most operators has been catastrophic,” read the letter. “It is our educated opinion that it is going to take at least a year before our businesses will fully recover from this natural disaster.”
Suspending minimum rents would cost MIA about $9 million a year in lost revenues, airport spokesman Greg Chin said, and the loss could be covered by the higher landing fees that airlines typically pass on to passengers.
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While many businesses carry interruption insurance to cover lost sales during a closure, the vendors argue Irma has brought an extended decline in sales as the tourism industry comes back from a storm that walloped much of Florida. But county officials question why Miami-Dade should compensate for the kind of sales decline that can hit any business during a slow stretch.
“We don’t give people property-tax breaks due to a storm,” said Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the County Commission. “I’m not buying this issue. Of, for three days of downtime, having a full-year extension. The math just doesn’t add up.”
Several of the MIA vendors were ready to plead their cases Thursday at a meeting of the County Commission’s tourism committee, but Rebeca Sosa, the committee’s chairwoman, said the issue of airport contracts had gotten complicated enough that she wanted a special meeting on the topic. Mayor Carlos Gimenez suspended most contracting decisions at MIA in the spring so that his staff could review the procurement system there amid tension between vendors and airport administrators.
Some of the top sources of campaign donations in county races operate at MIA, and contracts at the airport routinely draw intense discussion and debate at the commission. During the last year, vendors have complained that new flight schedules have cut into profits, with shorter layovers on international flights cutting into the time passengers spend dining and shopping.
“Before, you’d run up a tab with two beers and a burger,” said Silvio Leal, vice president of Siboney Spirits, which helps operate a string of shops and foot outlets at MIA. “Now you don’t have time. You’ve got to eat a grab-and-go.”
Leal said the 2017 hurricane season brought a string of trouble to the airport, with Irma freezing Miami tourism and spillover effects from the battered Florida Keys and a shutdown of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He’s expecting a slow recovery. “Will it be six months? Will it be a year? I don’t know,” he said. “But none of these places are going to recuperate immediately.”
The letter to González asks for minimum rents at MIA to be suspended for a year, or until traffic levels return to normal. Passenger traffic at MIA was down less than 1 percent before Irma hit on Sept. 10, and plunged nearly 20 percent during September, according to airport figures. Irma closed the airport completely between Sept. 9 and Sept. 11.
In response to vendors’ pleas, González issued a curt statement Thursday afternoon.
“In response to the request from airport concessionaires, I am working on an appropriate response that takes into account the best interests of Miami-Dade County, Miami International Airport and the traveling public,” he said.