Miami-Dade County commissioners on Thursday endorsed using property taxes to fund about $30 million in development subsidies for a series of for-profit projects, including $9 million for the planned SkyRise Miami observation tower on the city waterfront.
With heated words for Mayor Carlos Gimenez, members of the commission’s economic-development committee rejected Gimenez’s last-minute request to scrap his administration’s initial plan to fund projects at Opa-locka airport, a new for-profit medical school and a commercial complex in southern Miami-Dade. With those proposals drawing fire, Gimenez on Wednesday announced he wanted to fund a smaller batch of more ambitious ventures, including SkyRise.
The four-member committee ended up endorsing almost all of the grant proposals before it Thursday, and members chastised Gimenez for wanting to change course.
“I cannot say how disappointed I am in the mayor’s position. And what he came up with in the 11th hour,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who backed a trio of projects that she said could make Opa-locka one of the most popular small airports in the country. “It gave me a flashback to the budget process. I’m tired of it.”
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Gimenez did not attend the committee hearing, but sent his deputy in charge of economic programs, Jack Osterholt. Lynda Bell, the outgoing commissioner who chairs the committee, declined to let him speak. As Bell delivered closing remarks critical of the administration, Osterholt exited the chambers as other senior staff followed him to the door.
The full commission still must vote on the grants, which would tap into $75 million worth of county debt authorized by the 2004 Building Better Communities ballot initiative.
A special countywide property tax funds the debt payments, and the rate can increase as commissioners authorize more borrowing. Administration officials have not offered an estimate on whether the tax rate would go up because of the economic-development program, but the relatively small chunk of debt would likely only account for pennies on a typical tax bill.
The money under discussion must be used for developer expenses that fall under the category of “public infrastructure,” such as parking facilities, sewage and utility work, road extensions and sidewalks.
Another project that won Gimenez’s recent endorsement, the proposed Miami Wilds theme park in South Dade, was not on Thursday’s agenda. A grant application lists the 20th Century Fox attraction seeking $13.5 million from the county’s economic-development pool, and a total of $130 million from government at all levels. Gimenez has not said how much money he thinks the park should receive from Miami-Dade.
On Thursday, the only consistent ‘no’ vote on the grants was Juan C. Zapata, who represents western Miami-Dade. But the full committee did reject two proposals: using the economic-development money for $18 million of beach renourishment, and a $5 million grant submission from an Opa-locka venture that wanted to recruit a terminal operator from the Fort Lauderdale area.
SkyRise left the committee chambers with the largest potential payout, with other applicants each winning approval for $5 million grants. SkyRise asked for a $15 million subsidy in February, but the administration said it held off putting the request in the approval pipeline until after August’s city referendum on whether to build the 1,000-foot tower.
The other grants were discussed at a July meeting, well before Miami voters overwhelmingly endorsed the project, which sits on city land. SkyRise used the slogan “No Cost to the City” in the campaign, and the bid for county dollars did not become public until Gimenez announced his endorsement of the grant Wednesday afternoon.
“We decided it didn’t make any sense to ask for money for a project that may never happen because it wasn’t approved by voters,” SkyRise developer Jeff Berkowitz said in an interview.
SkyRise aims to become the most popular tourist attraction in South Florida, drawing about 3 million visitors a year to what would be the city’s highest point, with plunge rides, catering halls, restaurants and nightclubs. Berkowitz, a top campaign donor for Gimenez, sees SkyRise as a signature icon for Miami, in the way Seattle has the Space Needle and Paris the Eiffel Tower.
“Most of these towers around the world have been built with government assistance,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that something this important should have some level of government participation.”
He hopes to raise 60 percent of his $430 million development tab from more than 500 foreign investors under the federal EB-5 visa program, which trades investor dollars for green cards.
Investor materials describe a lucrative venture, with Berkowitz projecting SkyRise would soar in value to $630 million within five years. “Cash flow from the operation of the SkyRise Miami Tower may be sufficient to return all, or a significant portion, of the EB-5 investors’ capital after year 5,” read the brochure.
“That’s the projection,” said Berkowitz, who wore a brass Skyrise lapel pin for Thursday’s meeting. “All I can do is hope they’re right.”