A top Miami-Dade administrator is helping run a company close to securing about 120 acres at the county’s Opa-locka airport — and a $5 million county subsidy — under a foundation created by her famous mother: former congresswoman Carrie Meek.
Lucia Davis-Raiford, who earns about $197,000 as Miami-Dade’s social-services director, serves on the board of a for-profit company that the Carrie Meek Foundation recently formed to jump-start an Opa-locka commercial project that’s been stalled since 2008. That’s when county commissioners approved the Meek Foundation’s lease of the 120 acres at the airport in order to create an economic-development center and commercial complex to provide jobs for the working-class neighborhood.
Eight years later, the foundation’s new for-profit arm is set to partner with a commercial developer to build an undisclosed project on the public land and use county funds to subsidize some development costs.
Raiford-Davis briefly attended Wednesday’s negotiations between the foundation and the county’s economic-development officials, but did not speak and left minutes after arriving. The negotiations are public, and a reporter was already seated in the County Hall conference room when Davis-Raiford entered and took a chair by the wall.
Asked outside why she was there, Davis-Raiford said she was “curious.” Asked if she had a financial interest in the foundation’s new for-profit company, CPM Community First, Davis-Raiford said she was on her way to another meeting. “I’m not prepared to do an interview,” she said.
The new lease, part of a complex transaction involving the for-profit Meek spin-off and a company tied to an Orlando commercial real estate firm, is set to face a committee vote Thursday.
From there, it would head to the full 13-member commission for final approval. A decision on the $5 million grant, which already has received preliminary commission approval and an endorsement from Mayor Carlos Gimenez, would come later — and after the mayor’s administration finishes its negotiations with the foundation.
As we have never presented our proposal to the new director and are very excited about the project, it is hoped that we can discuss this very soon.
Social services director Lucia Davis-Raiford to MIA chief Emilio González
To qualify for the money, the foundation and its partner would need to build the project and employ 1,000 people at county-approved wages.
Davis-Raiford is a Gimenez appointee, and is part of perhaps the most powerful family in Miami-Dade’s African-American political establishment. Carrie Meek, a Democrat, served in Congress between 1993 and 2003, and was succeeded by her son, Kendrick. He served until 2011, after losing a race for the U.S. Senate. Davis-Raiford, a veteran of local government, started at Miami-Dade in 2003 after holding senior posts in New York City government.
Shortly after taking office in 2011, Gimenez promoted her from the director of the county’s fair-employment division to take on the sprawling Community Action and Human Services Department. The department employs 520 people and includes the county’s elderly programs, Head Start and disability services.
Miami-Dade’s Ethics Commission has already conditionally cleared her work for the Meek Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2001 that until recently reported no staff or office space and little money. In 2009, the commission said she could serve on her mother’s foundation as it pursued the Opa-locka deal, provided that she not appear before any county board on behalf of the nonprofit or “meet with County officials” over county funding.
Emails from 2014 provided in response to a public-records request show Davis-Raiford copied on a string of discussions about an appraisal dispute that would help determine ground rent for the parcels. On July 22, 2014, Davis-Raiford wrote an airport official from her Bell South email account to set up a meeting with Miami-Dade Aviation Department director Emilio Gonzalez, who started in his post about a year earlier.
“This is written to request a meeting with MDAD Director Gonzalez to discuss the Carrie Meek Foundation development project at Opa-Locka Airport,” Davis-Raiford wrote in the email sent at 8:39 p.m. “As we have never presented our proposal to the new director and are very excited about the project, it is hoped that we can discuss this very soon.”
The Ethics commission opened an inquiry later that year, as Davis-Raiford’s role in the Meek Foundation was mentioned in news accounts about the nonprofit’s grant proposal. A summary of the case, which prompted no action, said Davis-Raiford described “a somewhat active role in all matters relating to the Meek foundation — including the potential development of the Opa-locka airport parcel …”
The case file shows Davis-Raiford, a law school graduate, said the 2009 opinion freed her to engage county officials on non-funding matters for the foundation. The case report said “her interpretation would have proven problematic” if she ended up lobbying county officials on non-financial matters, like permitting at the airport.
Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said Wednesday that “Ms. Davis-Raiford must adhere to the parameters set in the ethics opinion.”
The foundation’s pursuit of county money began in 2014, when the Meek Foundation and others applied for part of a $75 million pool of economic-development dollars that Gimenez and commissioners wanted to distribute.
The money would come from dollars borrowed against a special countywide property tax that pays for voter-approved debt. The $75 million fund was one of 303 projects in a 43-page appendix that commissioners created in 2004 when they sent a $2.9 billion bond referendum to voters. It passed overwhelmingly, and the economic-development fund was linked to a broadly-worded question about “infrastructure improvements to enhance quality of life.”
Idle for 10 years, the economic-development fund was not advertised before the administration began the approval process for assigning the money in 2014. A string of politically connected applicants won early approval for the grants, including campaign donors like Skyrise developer Jeff Berkowitz and affordable-housing developer Landmark. Two for-profit aviation operations at the Opa-locka airport separately backed by Jeff Soffer and Leonard Abess — two of the most prominent business executives in Miami-Dade — also won initial backing for grant money.
Two years later, aside from a $6 million renovation of Miami’s Flagler Street, none of the economic-development grants has won final approval from commissioners as administration officials continue negotiations with would-be recipients.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the Meek Foundation was represented by various lawyers and real estate executives and Tony Crapp Sr., a former Miami-Dade administrator who said he joined as the nonprofit’s executive director last month. His hire marked a significant change for the foundation, which tax records show had no payroll expense in 2014 and only $11,000 in revenue.
The nonprofit has been paying Miami-Dade $30,000 a year to maintain its lease at Opa-locka, started in 2008 and was supposed to produce a $110 million Carrie Meek Industrial Park. The nonprofit blamed the real estate crash for delays, and in 2010 commissioners agreed to extend the mandatory start of construction from 2012 to 2015.
Even with the extension, the Meek Foundation wasn’t able to start construction on time. The amended lease heading for a Thursday vote by the Trade and Tourism committee would create a new eight-year development timetable, and ultimately give the Meek entity a 64-year lease on the land.
County documents outline the complex transactions involved in transferring the lease from the nonprofit foundation to for-profit entities. It described the for-profit CPM Community First as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the foundation. State corporate records show the company was formed March 28, with Carrie Meek as its president, and her son and Davis-Raiford holding two of the other three board seats.
CPM is set to own 30 percent of the for-profit entity that would take control of the Opa-locka lease. CCRE Meek LLC would be controlled by Foundry Commercial, an Orlando-based firm until recently known as CNL Commercial Real Estate. Ford Gibson, a veteran of Miami-Dade’s commercial real estate industry, is joining Foundry to lead development at the Opa-locka site.
A June 22 press release described the new project as “a 1.7 million-square-foot, $150 million speculative development adjacent to the Opa-locka airport.”