Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade slashes hiring demands for Meek Foundation’s Amazon project

Retired congresswoman Carrie Meek, in the foreground, at a July 2016 hearing before the Miami-Dade County Commission on her foundation’s plan for a major new warehouse facility at the Opa-locka airport.
Retired congresswoman Carrie Meek, in the foreground, at a July 2016 hearing before the Miami-Dade County Commission on her foundation’s plan for a major new warehouse facility at the Opa-locka airport. DOUGLAS HANKS

Miami-Dade slashed hiring requirements for a warehouse facility that the Carrie Meek Foundation wants to build at a county-owned airport, a concession that drew criticism from the local inspector general.

The charity founded by the former congresswoman and run in part by a top aide to Mayor Carlos Gimenez signed a deal with a developer to build a long-stalled commercial facility on 120 acres of county land at the Opa-locka airport. Along with the county lease approved last year, the Meek Foundation won preliminary approval in 2014 for a $5 million infrastructure grant paid out of money borrowed against a special property tax reserved for county debt. The commercial operations are expected to pay about $2 million a year in rent to the county.

Part of the grant requirements required Meek to agree to a string of job-creation pledges, and the package was approved by the county commission in 2014 when it authorized the Gimenez administration to begin negotiating a final agreement with the non-profit. The $92 million warehouse facility expects to land Amazon as its first tenant in a deal that would bring the online retailing giant to the struggling city.

But in talks with Meek and the developer, Orlando’s Foundry Commercial, county officials agreed to dramatically lower the hiring targets, according to the inspector general’s report. While the original proposal called for the creation of 2,300 new jobs with an average annual wage of $37,000, the new agreement only requires 1,000 positions. The $37,000 pay requirement was eliminated, and replaced with a minimum wage of between $24,000 and $27,500. Those pay rules only apply to 500 of the jobs the new facility would be required to create.

In a memo to county elected officials, Inspector General Mary Cagle called the job reductions “significant.” The overall job requirement is down 56 percent under the new draft agreement, which is set for a preliminary vote before the commission’s Economic Prosperity committee on Thursday. The number of jobs tied to a wage requirement dropped nearly 80 percent from the original agreement to the new one, Cagle said in her memo.

And Cagle noted the smaller pool of wage-restricted jobs lends itself to bookkeeping tactics. The Meek facility could lump its highest-paid managers into the wage-restricted pool, then pay “a very high percentage” of the rest of the workers there the minimum wage and still meet county requirements for “average” compensation.

A Meek representative was not available for comment on the report. Leland Salomon, a top Gimenez deputy who supervises economic-development projects, defended the proposed agreement, saying it requires a reasonable amount of hiring for the project.

“I don’t really agree with anything they wrote,” Salomon said of the inspector general’s report. “Every grant deal is negotiated.”

Salomon said the original hiring requirements endorsed by the commission three years ago were essentially placeholders until Meek and the developer could get a better handle of potential tenants in the facility. “Until you know who is actually going to go in, how can you even make a guesstimate about how many employees you’re going to have?” Salomon said.

In a memo to commissioners seeking approval of the deal this week, Gimenez wrote that the part of Meek facility pursuing the $5 million shrank considerably in the last three years. While originally proposed as a 1.4 million square-foot warehouse complex to be built over five years, it’s now an 885,000 square-foot facility seeking the $5 million.

That distribution center, slated to house Amazon, represents the first phase of the project, which would use the county grant to fund public parking, utility hook-ups and other infrastructure expenses approved for a $75 million economic-development fund tacked onto a $2.9 billion borrowing program that county voters approved in 2004. Meek would only receive the money once hiring targets are met.

Cagle wrote that the Gimenez administration has agreed to lower job requirements for other grant agreements from the $75 million fund, deals that are winding their way through the final approval process. Her report did not detail other reductions, but called the Meek cuts “significant” by comparison.

In a statement, Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández wrote that the mayor had not read the report from the inspector general, but that his administration “will work with all parties… to ensure that jobs continue to be created for Miami-Dade County residents and that those employment opportunities benefit residents who live in and around those development projects.”

The Meek project stretches back nearly a decade, and Miami-Dade has granted extensions on its development deal at Opa-locka as it searched for a partner to fund construction. The plan launched by the former congresswoman, now in her 90s, calls for Foundry to develop the project, with the Meek Foundation, a non-profit that until recently had no paid staff, occupying a new 5,000-square-foot building on the site.

Lucia Davis-Raiford, a Meek daughter who serves on the foundation board and met with airport officials about the lease and attended at least one public grant-negotiating meeting, also works as social-services chief under Gimenez, running the county’s department of Community Action and Human Services.

In its report, the inspector general’s office recommended applying wage-requirements to all of the mandated jobs, tightening the definition of “new” positions so that the foundation doesn’t get credit for siphoning business from other warehouses, and compensating for the lower hiring thresholds by targeting Opa-locka residents for the positions.

As the report points out, the Meek facility is only required to hold a single job fair “intended to recruit Miami-Dade County residents” and advertise its job openings “at least once” in local media. Cagle recommended a requirement that a job fair be held within Opa-locka itself, which the report described as “an area of our community that is in dire need of employment opportunities.”