Miami-Dade County

Owners of luxe private jets want even bigger planes. That may be good for Miami.

A rendering of the planned Bombardier maintenance facility for private jets at Miami-Dade’s Opa-Locka airport. It’s expected to open in 2020, and cost about $100 million to build.
A rendering of the planned Bombardier maintenance facility for private jets at Miami-Dade’s Opa-Locka airport. It’s expected to open in 2020, and cost about $100 million to build.

The maker of Learjets plans to build a $100 million maintenance facility at the Opa-locka airport, a nearly 300,000-square-foot operation that Bombardier predicts will be the busiest in its global network of repair shops for the increasingly larger planes owned by the ultra wealthy and Fortune 500 corporations.

Miami-Dade wants to give Bombardier $5 million to subsidize some development costs of the facility at the county-owned airport, but the funds may not be available. Bombardier is moving ahead with the project anyway, with a formal announcement made Wednesday. In county documents filed earlier this year, Bombardier predicted 150 employees would work at the facility once it opens in 2020, with an average wage of $70,000.

Bombardier plans to shift more than 120 jobs south from its existing facility in Fort Lauderdale, which has a payroll of 150, said Leland Salomon, Miami-Dade’s economic-development director. In its application for the Miami-Dade grant, Bombardier says 27 “incremental” jobs will be created in Opa-locka. The company said the Fort Lauderdale facility will continue to operate, but did not say how many people will work there.

barbara jordan opa-locka.jpg
Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan speaks during a ceremony celebrating Bombardier’s plan to open a $100 million maintenance facility for private jets at the county’s Opa-locka airport. The runway ceremony was held Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. DOUGLAS HANKS

For Bombardier, Opa-locka offers the opportunity to build new maintenance hangars from scratch, with an eye to the larger executive jets sought by customers.

The company owns the Learjets brand, as well as Challenger and Global. While the earliest versions of those types of planes had seating for seven or eight people, Learjets’ latest models can hold nearly 20 passengers. That means the company needs larger maintenance bays than what it has in most of its existing nine maintenance centers around the world.

The new one in Opa-locka will be the largest maintenance facility for the company, and that should help it become the busiest one, too, said Jean-Cristophe Gallagher, the Bombardier vice president who helped close the deal with Miami-Dade. With Opa-locka already a popular destination for private jets, Bombardier saw the facility as an attractive place to try and capture more maintenance and service dollars for the niche industry.

“If the traffic is already going in and out of the airport,” Gallagher said, “it’s a natural to have a service facility next to that airport.”

Once operations shift from Fort Lauderdale to Opa-locka, Bombardier’s closest large service facility will be in Dallas, Gallagher said. While Opa-locka would be one of nine facilities worldwide, it’s expected to service nearly a quarter of the 200 Bombardier planes that are usually under maintenance on a typical day. Fort Lauderdale is already a hub for private-jet owners in Latin America seeking major maintenance projects, and Gallagher said he expects that business to increase with the shift to Miami-Dade.

soffer opa-locka.jpg
Real estate mogul Jeffrey Soffer owns the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach, as well as a private-jet complex at the Opa-locka airport that bears the Miami Beach hotel’s name. Bombardier is leasing land from the Opa-locka operation to build a new maintenance facility for its jets. DOUGLAS HANKS

The Bombardier announcement is the latest effort by the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez to use economic-development funds to support businesses at the Opa-locka airport. Miami-Dade approved the Carrie Meek Foundation for a $5 million grant to cover some infrastructure costs for a new Amazon warehouse the nonprofit signed to a commercial complex it is building at Opa-locka with an Orlando developer.

A private jet terminal owned by retired banking mogul Leonard Abess won approval for another $5 million grant at Opa-locka, as did the competing Fontainebleau Aviation terminal, owned by Jeffrey Soffer, the wealthy developer whose family owns the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach.

Bombardier’s land deal is with Soffer’s property, and the new maintenance facility would be a sub-tenant of Fontainebleau’s. Miami-Dade will draw the $5 million grants from economic-development funds borrowed against property taxes countywide, and the full $75 million had been assigned before Bombardier sought the money. But since recipients only get the money once a project is built and the required number of people are hired, some of the grants could dissolve and leave dollars for Bombardier.

At a runway ceremony celebrating the deal, County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who represents Opa-locka, touted the airport as a turnaround story, with a budding portfolio of businesses offering solid wages in a place that used to just be scattered hangars.

“It was barren,” Jordan said. “We’re talking about progress. We’re talking about jobs.”