Miami-Dade County

How a ‘country club for cars’ could be the path for new foster home facilities

A rendering of Drivers Club Miami, a high-end auto club and private track proposed on Miami-Dade land outside of Miami Gardens.
A rendering of Drivers Club Miami, a high-end auto club and private track proposed on Miami-Dade land outside of Miami Gardens. Drivers Club Miami

A “country club for cars” may soon take over county-owned land outside Miami Gardens, with a South American developer offering to build an $85 million auto club and track on property that currently houses a foster home.

The latest bid to transform the home of His House and other charities into a for-profit jobs generator centers around wealthy auto enthusiasts and the big money required to drive luxe cars on private tracks. Initiation fees for the Drivers Club Miami would hit $100,000, with private garages, a professional driving coach and a $10 million clubhouse for members.

Ralph Lauren took his cars to Paris, to the Louvre, and I think he was able to get more people than any other collection of art,” said Carlos de Narváez, a classic-car aficionado whose family launched one of South America’s largest grocery chains. “I do believe there’s a market. … I go to Miami a lot. I see a lot of people with beautiful cars.”

The high-end venture marks the latest bid to transform 160 acres of county land into a for-profit venture, a task made all the more delicate given the current tenants. Along with the His House foster home, which houses about 230 foster children and unaccompanied child migrants, Miami-Dade rents space to the Center for Family and Child Enrichment and the Arc of South Florida. All three are longstanding cogs in the county’s social safety net.

I do believe there’s a market. … I go to Miami a lot. I see a lot of people with beautiful cars.

Drivers Club Miami developer Carlos de Narváez

Part of the county’s terms for turning the land over to the Drivers Club requires de Narváez to provide new quarters for the nonprofits, either on the site or elsewhere. His House leaders say their cluster of office buildings and residential homes on the property are already so full they routinely turn away children needing housing. There are other buildings on the property, vacant and deteriorating, that His House says could provide more than 400 additional beds if there was the money and the will to accommodate an expansion.

“Currently, we turn down between 100 to 120 children per month for placement because of a lack of capacity in our homes,” executive director Silvia Smith-Torres said during a recent tour. “Every day, seeing all the empty houses on campus saddens me, knowing the need in the community.”

The Auto Club team says no decisions have been made on where to put the three charities. But they’re pitching the track project as a quick path to improved facilities.

“Under no circumstance does Carlos plan to provide [His House] with equal facilities,” said Al Dotson, the lawyer and lobbyist negotiating the Auto Club lease with Miami-Dade. “The facilities there are insufficient to meet their needs. He wants to provide them with superior facilities.”

The Drivers Club lobbying strategy centers on positioning the project as an economic boon to the county and the neighborhood, adding an estimated 340 jobs. Along with relief for the resident nonprofits, Drivers Club promises a one-mile bike track on the property for community use, an auto-mechanics program for the Miami-Dade school system and new office space for county services.

The county did not launch a formal request for proposals on the land. Commissioner Barbara Jordan, whose district includes the property, is backing the Drivers Club effort as a way to bring high-paying jobs to the area. Her office declined an interview request.

Miami-Dade took over the site from Florida in 2005 when the state wanted to close the foster home and other social-service agencies on the property. Rent wasn’t covering upkeep expenses, and the Miami-Dade County Commission approved a plan from then-manager George Burgess to accommodate the charities and gain undeveloped land for future county facilities.

“By accepting this property,” Burgess wrote, “the County will not only be preserving much needed programs, but will also gain 90 acres of undeveloped property which can be utilized to address other County needs.”

Twelve years later, the undeveloped portion of the property is still vacant.

In recent years, the focus has shifted to a for-profit venture. In 2014, commissioners gave early approval for a $10 million subsidy to help Miami Ocean Studios open there. The short-lived plan for a $265 million production facility with aquatic tanks large enough to film “Titanic” fizzled early last year, when the developer said investment dollars had evaporated. Drivers Club was already making inquiries with county officials about stepping in to pursue its own lease.

Every day, seeing all the empty houses on campus saddens me knowing the need in the community.

His House director Silvia Smith-Torres

De Narváez has an auto club in Buenos Aires. His plans for a luxury auto complex just outside the city limits of Miami Gardens include a 50-room hotel and a retail center to serve the deep-pocketed drivers and others drawn to the facility. An April economic-impact report by Goodkin Consulting commissioned by Drivers Club projects $22 million in revenue a year, including $2 million alone from members paying for garage space.

The centerpiece would be the two-mile, $22 million track winding through the property. The report describes four configurations — or “circuits” — designed for high-performance driving, including one named after Monaco, home to one of the world’s glitziest auto races. That’s a sensitive concept for the Drivers Club team. “This is not a race track,” Dotson said. “This is a training course.”

Even so, speed promises to be a selling point. The Goodkin report includes plans for a go-kart course, and an executive with the development team, Aaron Weiss, pointed to a speed-centric club in New York as the “closest operational” example of what the Drivers Club Miami would be.

The website for the Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, New York, shows helmeted drivers at the wheels of Porsche and Mazda race cars and “Racing Schools” for amateur drivers to learn “a foundation in racing techniques.” Asked about racing lessons, a Drivers Club Miami publicist responded that “there will be driving instruction for members who want to learn how to handle their personal high-performance cars in the closed circuit format that DCM will offer.”

Preliminary negotiations are under way with the county’s economic-development arm, and Drivers Club has not yet released detailed plans for the site. The proposal would eventually face public hearings and a vote by the Miami-Dade County Commission. A draft lease has the business paying up to $300,000 a year in rent for the first 10 years, then $2 million or more annually after that.

Oliver Gilbert, mayor of neighboring Miami Gardens, said he’s not expecting opposition to the track from a city that’s already home to the Miami Dolphins’ stadium and has been pressing for new employment centers.

“It’s a very intense use,” Gilbert said of the track, “but it will bring jobs to the area. So I’m not against it.”