Miami-Dade commissioners to take up rock-mining plan at former Opa-locka West Airport site

07/01/2013 6:59 PM

07/02/2013 3:58 AM

To stem off a financial crisis, the Miami-Dade aviation department in 2007 came up with a plan it hoped would generate hundreds of millions of dollars from rock mining at the vacant site of the decommissioned Opa-locka West Airport.

But the proposal quickly got tied up in a legal challenge from a pair of mining companies that questioned how the county and the Florida Department of Transportation intended to make money from extracting limestone at the nearly 422-acre property.

Six years later, FDOT and Miami-Dade have agreed to a new approach, settling the complaint from Cemex Construction Materials and White Rock Quarries. Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to vote on the proposal Tuesday.

If approved, companies would be able to vie to head the operation, which the department expects to bring in $1 million to $2 million a year, said Greg Owens, director of the department’s real estate management and development division that will oversee the agreement.

That’s a far lower estimate than under the original proposal. But any revenue is key for the department that runs Miami International Airport, which took on extensive debt to finance $6.4 billion in construction projects.

“We want to make the debt burden as painless as possible for the airlines and then, in effect, the passengers,” said Greg Chin, a department spokesman.

Though the airport is in better fiscal shape than it was a few years ago — among other things, its credit rating has improved, allowing it to negotiate more favorable interest rates and save millions of dollars — the department is still seeking revenue to lower or hold steady the landing fees and other charges paid by airlines to operate MIA.

Some of the department’s ideas — oil drilling in the Everglades, for example, and installing slot machines in airport terminals — have been shelved. Others are still in the works.

The department is looking to partner with private companies to develop retail space on 28 acres by Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport and commercial and retail space on parcels near MIA. In total, those rents could bring about $1 million a year.

And the department is hoping Airport City, a $512 million project at MIA built by a private developer, will bring in nearly $580 million in rent and other operating revenues over 40 years. But that development, by Odebrecht USA, has yet to be approved by commissioners.

In 2007, Miami-Dade estimated that limestone mining at the Opa-locka West Airport site, opened in 1970 but decommissioned in 2006 because its short runaways attracted little airplane traffic, could result in a windfall to the county of at least $247 million over 24 years. The county estimates that 45 million to 50 million tons of limestone lie beneath the property’s surface.

The outlook is not nearly as rosy now, with the new proposed contract terms and the post-recession economy.

The rewritten agreement loosens restrictions that would have benefitted the government. FDOT would only be able to encourage — not require — its contractors to purchase rock from the site. And while Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe county governments and firms would be given priority over other clients, they would not have exclusive access.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe have an ample supply of rock,” Owens said.

Several potential operators protested in 2010 when FDOT issued its invitation to companies to negotiate the contract. The firms said the plan was inconsistent with industry practices. No bids had been filed when Cemex sued and White Rock intervened in the case.

If commissioners sign off on the proposal, one venture will be directly affected: Countyline Dragway, Miami-Dade’s first drag racing strip, which opened at the Opa-locka West Airport site in 2007 to provide would-be racers with a safer place than public streets to compete.

Anthony Muñoz, who owns the company, lamented that his year-to-year contract with the county will likely come to an end when the mining venture proceeds, even though the racing strip only uses about 23 acres, he said.

“It would be nice if they could work around us, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “We are scouting out other avenues to try to move the track somewhere else in Miami-Dade.”

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