Broward County

Meek Foundation’s latest airport deal wins key vote in Miami-Dade

Former congresswoman Carrie Meek watches on Thursday as Miami-Dade commissioners prepare to approve a new agreement for her foundation’s long-delayed commercial project at the Opa-locka airport.
Former congresswoman Carrie Meek watches on Thursday as Miami-Dade commissioners prepare to approve a new agreement for her foundation’s long-delayed commercial project at the Opa-locka airport. dhanks@miamiherald.com

The Carrie Meek Foundation’s long-stalled land deal at Miami-Dade’s Opa-locka airport moved closer to another extension on Thursday, with a major company reportedly in talks to occupy a planned $110 million commercial complex that would pump millions back into the charity.

After nearly a decade of delays, backers of the project expressed confidence that a vital employment center was set to rise in the strapped city through a complex partnership between the former congresswoman’s nonprofit and a real estate firm out of Orlando.

Under the deal backed by a County Commission committee on Thursday, the Meek partnership would retain control of about 120 acres in Opa-locka for construction of a warehouse facility that would initially house a single tenant. Meek representatives have declined to identity which company is in talks for the space, but multiple sources close to County Hall said it was Amazon.

The Meek Foundation would fund its overhead, job training and community programs with proceeds from the deal, with the developer required to pay at least $3 million to the charity once construction starts. A Workforce Development Plan included in the deal requires the foundation to give priority to needy residents of Opa-locka, a city where financial woes have pushed the government to the brink of bankruptcy.

The Meek venture is also on track to win a $5 million county subsidy for infrastructure work on the site, including public parking and sewer hook-ups that developers typically must fund themselves. An administration memo forecasts the venture will pay the county-owned airport about $2 million a year in rent if the commercial center opens as planned.

“This is a property that has been empty for a very long time,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, chairman of the Trade and Tourism committee. “This finally is taking a positive step and moving forward.”

Meek, 90, did not address commissioners but sat in the front row of the chambers. She serves as president of the foundation, which in recent years had no staff and little money beyond the $31,000 it needed to pay Miami-Dade annually to maintain its hold on the county lease.

This is a property that has been empty for a very long time. This finally is taking a positive step and moving forward.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz

The foundation is backed by Foundry Commercial, an Orlando-based real estate firm where partners have helped develop about $6 billion worth of projects, including Doral’s Beacon Center and Coconut Grove’s Grovenor House condo tower, according to publicity materials given the committee.

Approval of the new 65-year Meek lease at Opa-locka would replace a 2010 agreement that had required $18 million worth of construction by last year. The new lease extends that deadline until 2019, with all $110 million built by 2025.

The unanimous vote came after Commissioner Xavier Suarez pressed county administrators and foundation representatives for details on the charity’s new for-profit arm, which has a Miami-Dade agency director on its board thanks to her being Meek’s daughter.

Lucia Davis-Raiford, director of social services for Miami-Dade, has played an active role in her mother’s foundation and its dealings with Miami-Dade over the Opa-locka land agreement, according to county records and interviews. She also is a director of a new for-profit company the foundation recently formed, CPM Community First, to own 30 percent of the Opa-locka lease, with Foundry owning the rest.

“Do we know anything about the principals?” Suarez asked, using a term for a company’s partners.

Representatives for the charity said Davis-Raiford holds no financial stake in the for-profit arm, and would not benefit financially from the pending real estate development. They said the charity needed to form a business to accept the millions of dollars in real estate revenue that would flow to the nonprofit if the project was built, since receiving the money directly would endanger the foundation’s nonprofit status.

All the proceeds derived from the development that go to the for-profit entity flow directly up to the foundation after paying the appropriate taxes.

Miguel De Grandy, Meek Foundation lobbyist

“All the proceeds derived from the development that go to the for-profit entity flow directly up to the foundation after paying the appropriate taxes,” said foundation lobbyist Miguel De Grandy. “So all the money still goes to the purpose for which it was envisioned when the lease was created in 2008, which is to create programs for job training and economic development.”

The questioning followed a Miami Herald story reporting Davis-Raiford’s role in foundation exchanges with county aviation officials and her attendance at a public negotiating session this week on a $5 million county economic-development grant for the project. Davis-Raiford did not attend Thursday’s committee meeting.

Administration officials pointed to a 2009 Ethics Commission ruling, which cleared Davis-Raiford’s foundation work as long as she didn’t lobby Miami-Dade for county funds. While she has been a foundation contact for the Aviation Department on the Opa-locka land deal, Davis-Raiford said she has had no role in pursuing the $5 million grant.

Meek representatives have recently scaled down what they want to deliver in exchange for county money. A draft of the $5 million grant agreement shows what was going to be a 1.75 million-square-foot construction project over five years is now described as a “single large bay distribution and warehouse” spanning about 860,000 square feet. While the agreement previously was going to require the creation of 2,300 jobs, now only 1,000 will need to be created to qualify for the money.

Commissioners are expected to vote on the grant agreement in September. The $5 million grant is part of a $75 million economic-development fund that’s borrowed against property taxes and eligible for public infrastructure expenses that developers otherwise must fund to start construction.

In 2008, the Meek Foundation signed its first lease on the Opa-locka site, which is part of the airport’s holdings and sits within city limits. The plan was for the nonprofit to create a for-profit industrial park, and run a job-training center and other community programs aimed at Opa-locka residents.

Meek backers blamed chronic delays on the 2008 financial crisis and slow recovery. With the backing of Foundry and a large tenant in talks to occupy the space, supporters describe the new deal as clearing the way for progress.

“I’m confident something is going to happen this time,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said. “The market is right.”

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