Miami-Dade residents could pay more property taxes to help build the new SkyRise Miami observation tower on Biscayne Bay and a 20th Century Fox theme park at Zoo Miami under a new proposal by Mayor Carlos Gimenez that marks a sharp change in course on economic-development grants.
The mayor revealed his bid to subsidize the high-profile, for-profit projects Wednesday afternoon while announcing he was abandoning a controversial push to give $5 million economic-development grants to a string of more modest projects. Those include an existing private-jet complex backed by wealthy banker Leonard Abess Jr., a proposed industrial park sought by a group led by former congresswoman Carrie Meek, and a commercial complex by Wayne Rosen, a top donor in county commission races.
“What prompted the change is we need to go back to the original intent,” Gimenez said Wednesday. “These projects we have right now ... they’re good projects, but they’re not really game-changing projects.”
The public dollars in question come from 2004’s Building Better Communities ballot initiative, in which voters authorized Miami-Dade to borrow nearly $3 billion for dozens of projects. A special property tax is used to pay back the bond debt, and the rate goes up as county commissioners approve more borrowing.
While the phrase “economic development” did not appear on the 2004 ballot, a $75 million grant program was included in a long list of expenditures that commissioners created in establishing the bond program. Despite 10 years of boom-and-bust conditions, commissioners have yet to approve a project that would require any of the $75 million to be borrowed. Earlier this year, the Gimenez administration began pushing to get projects approved for grants.
The grant money can only be used for “public infrastructure” costs that most developers pay for, including sewage-system extensions, new roadways and sidewalks, and parking facilities. New debt tied to the economic-development project would likely amount to only pennies on a typical tax bill, given the amounts involved, and a surge in property values could let Miami-Dade make payments without a higher tax rate.
Gimenez declined to say how much money he wanted to send to the 1,000-foot SkyRise at Bayside or 20th Century Fox’s proposed Miami Wilds park, a Hollywood-themed attraction to rise next to Zoo Miami. But a proposal circulated by Commissioner Bruno Barreiro Wednesday called for SkyRise to receive $9 million, and a Gimenez spokesman said that figure represented the maximum the mayor would recommend for the tower that won approval by Miami voters in an August referendum.
Gimenez said Miami Wilds would receive significantly more than SkyRise under his plan, but he would not provide an amount. A county report said the theme park’s plans include about $130 million in infrastructure work eligible for county funding, but that “state and federal sources” would be needed to reach that amount.
Commissioners can still move forward with the original grants Gimenez proposed.
“We’re trying to redevelop the entire Opa-locka airport,” said County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, whose district includes the county-owned airport that is home to Abess’ Orion Jet Center and the development site controlled by the Carrie Meek Foundation. “It’s going to make Opa-locka probably one of the most popular general aviation airports in the country once these projects are completed.”
With a direct link to property-tax bills, Gimenez’s original grant plan was bound to draw extra scrutiny. But the combination of prominent names and an election year had the proposal roiling political waters.
Commissioner Lynda Bell, facing a tough reelection fight, dropped her sponsorship of Rosen’s project just before the election. Rosen was her top contributor and critics pounced on the connection. After losing to newcomer Daniella Levine Cava in August, Bell is once again listed as the sponsor of Rosen’s project in Palmetto Bay.
Bell, whose term expires after Election Day, serves as chair of the commission economic-development committee, which is scheduled to consider the original grant proposals at its meeting Thursday afternoon. A for-profit medical school in southern Miami-Dade and another commercial complex at Opa-locka were also recommended for $5 million grants. All the original grant items remain on the committee’s agenda.
The new tack by Gimenez comes on the heels of a shake-up in his economic-development team. The official he hired from New York to spearhead economic development, Josh Gelfman, announced he was taking a job with a Miami developer two weeks ago and scheduled his last day for Wednesday. Robert Cruz, the Miami-Dade chief economist charged with screening the grants for job creation, lost his job in Gimenez’s 2015 budget plan and is set to leave by December.
When Gimenez’s team first proposed the grant recipients, critics pounced on the plan, questioning how the projects were selected without first issuing a formal request for applicants.
“Of all the egregious things I’ve seen, this is about at the top of the list,” Commissioner Juan C. Zapata said of the original grant proposals.
Abess is the primary investor of the parent company for Orion, which runs private-jet hangars and a terminal at Opa-locka airport. He gained national fame when he sold his family’s bank for $945 million in 2008 and then quietly shared millions in profits with his employees.
The new terminal and hangars outlined in Orion’s 2013 grant application opened earlier this year. Cruz, the economist, said completed projects are still eligible for new grant dollars for a limited window of time. An airport official said Orion also was pursuing a new expansion plan that could be added to the grant application. Orion executives and Abess could not be reached for comment.
The Meek foundation was given development rights to 124 acres of vacant Opa-locka land in 2008 under the condition that it begin building a new commercial complex by 2015. Next year, rent kicks in if the project doesn’t begin. The nonprofit is counting on the project for a revival. Its website appears defunct (it now redirects to a page filled with Japanese characters), and the foundation no longer employs any paid staff, said Lucia Davis-Raiford, an Gimenez deputy and a volunteer board member of the Meek foundation who is also Meek’s daughter.
“We had to do some housecleaning,” said Davis-Raiford, the county’s social-services director who is also serving as a point person for the foundation’s airport effort. She said the nonprofit has signed a major national developer to partner in the project. “We hope to be really game-changing in our approach,” she said.
While commissioners are set to consider the original grant proposals Thursday, administration officials said they would ask the panel to delay a debate until the mayor can refine how he wants Miami-Dade to spend the economic-development money.
“The administration is calling a timeout,” said Mike Hernández, Gimenez’s communications chief.
The online version of this article was updated to correct an error in the quote from Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who said the expansion at Opa-locka airport would probably make it one of the most popular general-aviation airports in the country (not the county).