Miami-Dade County

Amid ethnic tensions, Airport City project at MIA survives

A stalled development at Miami International Airport survived a vote Wednesday at Miami-Dade County Hall that exposed ethnic tensions between a pair of commissioners.

Final negotiations can continue with contractor Odebrecht USA to build Airport City, a hotel and commercial project on about nine acres of county-owned airport land.

Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo tried to delay the agreement, which has been in the works since 2008, by asking Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration to examine potential alternatives for the prime site. Odebrecht USA has been in Bovo’s crosshairs since he learned a few years ago that an affiliate of its Brazilian parent company works in Cuba.

Bovo’s proposal died with a tied vote after a blow-up that followed Commissioner Javier Souto’s suggestion that the board should steer clear of inflaming Cuban-American sentiment, given the Cuban exile community’s role in the county.

“The Latins here pay more taxes per capita than anybody else,” Souto said. “And out of the Latin people, the prevalent community is the Cuban community. If you don’t know that, you don’t know where you’re living.”

Miami is where it is today, he added, “because of the Cubans who came here.”

“We shouldn’t fool around or play around with the feelings of communities, especially minorities,” said Souto, who is Cuban American.

His remarks prompted a resounding rebuke from Commissioner Dennis Moss, who is African American, and who called Souto’s comments “offensive.”

“That’s part of what’s wrong with Miami-Dade County,” he said, raising his voice in anger. “We’re not about fairness. We’re about power and money.”

“Black folks built this community,” he added. “To simply say that, well, Latins came to this town and all of a sudden, this town is what it is — I resent that. My ancestors were helping build this county while other people were other places.”

Trying to calm things down, Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said, “We are one community.”

The ugly incident overshadowed the earlier debate on Bovo’s proposal. He didn’t argue against Odebrecht USA, which he called an “outstanding partner” in past county projects. But he said commissioners owed it to their constituents to look for the best deal possible.

“We only get one shot at these things,” he said. “Unfortunately, our track record of dealing with other entities when we have something they want — be it a stadium or what have you — our track record isn’t that good.”

Aviation Director Emilio González asked commissioners last month to downsize the original, $512 million Airport City project. Instead of 33 acres that would also include conference and office space, the development would now comprise nine acres for a hotel and shopping center just east of MIA’s parking garages and terminals.

Odebrecht USA accepted the change last month, and agreed to better terms for the county late last year. The firm would privately finance construction and split rents with Miami-Dade, which would still own the land.

Still, Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt acknowledged Wednesday, “As we sit here today, I don’t know we feel we’re ready to tell you what are the highest and best uses for those two pieces of property.”

He spoke on the administration’s behalf because the mayor was out sick.

Odebrecht USA executives and their lawyers sat in the commission chambers all day waiting for the vote, but they did not address the board.

Commissioners were supposed to take up a second, competing proposal by Moss that would have forced the administration to bring the Airport City agreements to the board in three months. Bovo used a procedural move to delay a vote on that measure for another two weeks.

Bovo’s own resolution to delay the agreement with Odebrecht died in a 6-6 vote. Voting in favor were Bovo, Sosa, Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Sally Heyman, Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Souto. Moss and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime and Xavier Suarez voted against.

Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who would have broken the tie, was absent from the vote.