Odebrecht says it may sue Miami-Dade over stalled Airport City project

07/09/2014 11:26 AM

07/09/2014 7:45 PM

A Miami-Dade County commissioner said Wednesday that he wants to press Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration for a final decision on a commercial development proposed at Miami International Airport that has been in the works for six years but now appears to be on the verge of falling apart.

Airport City had already been diminished by Cuban exile politics before county aviation administrators recently began to reconsider whether what remains of the project is a good idea after all.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, the vice-chairman of the commission’s transportation and aviation committee, said he’s tired of the back and forth.

“I don’t know if we can continue to wait for the administration to give us a response,” he said. “Every time they give you a response, it’s ‘Prepare for more and more delays.’ ”

Barreiro spoke after the aviation department informed the committee that it was still figuring out whether what’s left of Airport City — once a 33-acre behemoth expected to bring to the county half a billion dollars over five decades — is the best development for the prime properties just east of MIA.

“The assumptions that underlined the original deal have been altered by time and circumstance,” Deputy Director Ken Pyatt said.

Contractor Odebrecht USA indicated earlier this week that it may sue the county, which owns MIA, for failing to bring to a vote Airport City project agreements that have been repeatedly revised at the urging of aviation administrators under pressure from some local politicians.

“In light of the fact that Odebrecht has expended millions of dollars pursuing Airport City and the continually changing and oddly timed articulated reasons for not moving the Project forward, Odebrecht may seek the reimbursement of its costs and damages,” company chief executive Gilberto Neves wrote Monday in a letter to Gimenez.

According to Neves, Odebrecht has spent more than $11 million on the project since Miami-Dade asked the construction industry in 2008 — in the throes of the economic recession — to come up with a public-private partnership to make money for the airport.

The aviation department informed Odebrecht last month that it may no longer be interested in hiring the contractor to build and manage a hotel by the airport — one of the last, key remaining Airport City components. In March, Odebrecht and the county had agreed on a lease that would require Odebrecht to build and manage the hotel on airport land, paying rent to MIA.

Pyatt said that, thanks to strong passenger and airline growth at MIA, airport administrators now think they could finance, build and operate the hotel themselves — as he said other airports have done — and make more money. “It’s only as market conditions have improved that the opportunity to self-finance revealed itself,” he said.

The idea surprised Commissioner Jean Monestime, who questioned whether the aviation department should shoulder the financial risk of constructing and running a hotel on its own. “I’m kind of shocked that you’re even thinking of doing this,” he said.

A spokesman for Aviation Director Emilio González declined to comment, and he did not speak about Airport City at Wednesday’s committee meeting. Gimenez did not respond to a reporter’s request for an interview, though his office said it had sent Neves’ letter to the county attorney for review.

Long after its inception, Airport City became contentious when some Cuban exiles learned that Coral Gables-based Odebrecht USA’s Brazilian parent company has a separate subsidiary working in Cuba. Odebrecht critics pushed Florida legislation two years ago to ban the state and local governments from hiring companies whose affiliates work in Cuba. Federal courts later struck down the ensuing law as unconstitutional.

The last time the project came up before commissioners, in February, the discussion exposed ethnic tensions between two board members.

Cuban-American Commissioner Javier Souto, citing the Cuban community’s role in Miami-Dade, said the county should give particular consideration to exiles upset over Odebrecht’s parent-company ties to Cuba. Commissioner Dennis Moss, who is African American, called the suggestion that a particular ethnic group deserves special treatment “offensive.”

On Wednesday, two black subcontractors of Odebrecht praised the firm and sharply criticized the county for waffling on the project. “Please put a stop to this charade,” Emmanuel Uche said.

In January, González, the aviation director who started in the job in April 2013, downsized the original $512 million Airport City, saying that MIA’s increased number of international carriers has created a need for more airplane parking space.

To make room for those “hardstands,” Airport City went from 33 acres that would have included conference and office space to nine acres for a hotel and shopping center. Odebrecht agreed to the reduction. Late last year, it had also agreed to better financial terms for the county.

The changes came after the Federal Aviation Administration had approved the original Airport City plans early last year, following an extensive review required by the federal government. According to Neves’ letter, the aviation department had said it would send a revised lease for the hotel portion of the project to the feds earlier this year, but never did.

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