For more than two years, Cuban exile politics have dogged a major development project that, as it was conceived, could have brought more than half a billion dollars in revenue over the next five decades to Miami International Airport.
Odebrecht USA, the contractor that would build Airport City, has indirect ties to Cuba through its Brazilian parent company, which has an affiliate expanding the port of Mariel and trying to revive the island’s sugar industry.
Though they have stalled the project, none of the political maneuvers targeting the Coral Gables-based Odebrecht USA — including a Florida law declared unconstitutional — have killed it. So this time, a Miami-Dade County commissioner is trying a different tack: Instead of going after the contractor, he’s going after the much-diminished project.
Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Cuban-American Republican whose father is a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, wants the county to consider potential alternatives to Airport City — essentially, trying to find a way to get Odebrecht USA out of the picture.
The airport recently asked to downsize the hotel and commercial development project to about nine acres from more than 33 acres, making it more of an airport village than a city.
Still, despite that re-negotiation, Bovo has argued that the economy has dramatically improved since the project was first proposed in 2008, and other developers recovered from the recession might be able to offer a better deal.
“This is prime real estate,” Bovo said last month.
The commissioner wants a report from Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration in two months suggesting other possible choices for the property just east of MIA’s terminals and parking garages. Bovo had originally hoped to scrap the plans altogether, though opposition from some of his colleagues prompted him to soften his approach.
Two years ago, Miami-Dade Republican lawmakers passed state legislation in Tallahassee targeting Odebrecht USA that would have prohibited local governments from awarding contracts worth at least $1 million to U.S.-based companies with subsidiaries in Cuba or Syria. Odebrecht USA challenged the law in federal court, where it was ruled unconstitutional. It was never enforced.
Bovo, a former state representative from Hialeah, has been pushing back against Odebrecht USA since shortly after he was elected to the commission in 2011, when he voted to give the firm a $57 million contract to rebuild PortMiami wharves. After learning of the parent company’s affiliate working in Cuba, Bovo reversed his vote.
It’s a position Bovo has been vocal about since then.
“Miami-Dade County should not be doing work with entities that are doing business with governments that basically have no respect for human rights,” Bovo told the Miami Herald in 2012, echoing a sentiment he has repeated from the dais. “It’s Cuba. It’s Syria. It’s Sudan.”
That year, he put a nonbinding question on the ballot asking if the county should ban the hiring of companies that “actively” do business with state sponsors of terrorism (such as Cuba). A 62-percent majority of voters said yes.
Hiring companies connected to Cuba has long been a politically fraught issue at County Hall. In 2000, a federal judge struck down a county law that tried to deny funding to nonprofits with ties to the island.
In 2007, county attorneys advised that Miami-Dade couldn’t consider Cuba ties in awarding the PortMiami tunnel project. It went to Bouygues Travaux Publics, a French firm whose affiliate built 11 resorts on the island in ventures with the Cuban military.
Odebrecht USA has been prolific in building county projects, including the airport’s North and South terminals, AmericanAirlines Arena and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Recently, the company has been doing roadwork on the MacArthur Causeway from the Florida Department of Transportation to accommodate tunnel traffic, and building a new runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for Broward County.
Bovo’s proposal will not be the only one coming before the commission for a vote Wednesday. A competing resolution from Commissioner Dennis Moss asks the county to make good on Airport City and finally ink the agreements to begin construction.
Airport administrators have said cementing a deal, even with its much-reduced scope, is important for MIA to tap a new source of revenues. Odebrecht USA would privately finance construction of a hotel and shopping center, and share the rent profits with the county. Money from those types of non-aeronautical sources allow the airport to keep the landing fees charged to airlines low, thus attracting more business.
Moss has stressed that the county should follow through with the project as a matter of principle after it selected a contractor and spent time and money negotiating a deal. Otherwise, “what kind of message are we sending to the business community?” he said last week.
He added that Miami-Dade should not leave Odebrecht USA hanging after the firm was willing to invest in Airport City during the economic downturn.
“They responded during the most difficult times that we’ve had,” Moss said.
Odebrecht USA declined an interview request. It released a list of bullet points it calls a “fact sheet” that, among other things, says that it would be unfair for the county to allow new developers to weigh in now that they have had a chance to see Odebrecht USA’s project concepts and finances.
The original, $512 million Airport City called for a hotel-conference center, shopping center, gas station and pet spa on 33 acres of county-owned land. It was expected to bring in nearly $580 million to the airport over Odebrecht USA’s 40-year agreement, with an option to renew for 10 more years.
Odebrecht pitched the Airport City idea — similar to existing ones in places like Frankfurt and Dubai — and was one of two contenders that made presentations to the county in 2009. Odebrecht was ranked higher than Megaladon Development and won the right to negotiate terms with MIA.
Lengthy negotiations made way for approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, which took about a year to sign off on the plans.
Despite the federal OK, the project has been in limbo since one of its champions, former Aviation Director José Abreu, retired last year. His successor, Emilio González, was aware of Airport City’s political pitfalls and last last year re-negotiated the agreements with Odebrecht USA.
As part of those updated plans, González proposed reducing Airport City to nine acres, leaving MIA with 24 acres to expand its airfield and build new parking for airplanes.
In his annual briefing last week on the status of the airport, González characterized the new, nine-acre Airport City as the “best of both worlds.”