Two weeks before New Jersey’s American Dream mega-mall finally opened its doors after years of delay, developers led a tour through an unfinished artificial ski mountain and an indoor amusement park for some out-of-town guests with sway over an even larger retail theme park planned off the Florida Turnpike in Miami-Dade.
“Pictures don’t do it justice,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said of his 3 1/2-hour private visit to the $3 billion Meadowlands project on Oct. 13, where he was joined by chief of staff Alex Ferro and deputy mayor Jack Osterholt. “You have to see it to appreciate it.”
Finally able to show off an American Dream location in New Jersey, Triple Five is using the partially opened Meadowlands site as a showcase for what the company can deliver in Miami.
Days before the Gimenez walk-through, Triple Five flew up a group of Miami pastors, political consultants and business representatives who supported American Dream during the approval process in 2017 and 2018. The group included Sandy Walker, an American Dream outreach consultant and sister of Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, and Pastor Carl Johnson, a Baptist minister from Miami who brought dozens of churchgoers to the commission chambers in 2017 to show support for the jobs American Dream could bring.
“The words I choose to use are ‘joy to the land,’” Johnson said of his visit to the New Jersey version of American Dream, which includes an indoor ski slope still under construction and an enclosed amusement park. “They put their heart into it.”
The renewed political efforts come as the company continues to meet with the Gimenez administration about public assistance for the $4 billion project outside of Hialeah and Miami Lakes. While Triple Five so far has failed in attempts to secure public dollars for American Dream Miami, the $3 billion sister project at the Meadowlands used about $1 billion in construction money tied to tax dollars.
Before Miami-Dade commissioners granted near unanimous approval of American Dream’s 200-acre development plan in May 2018, owners of Sawgrass Mills, Bayside Marketplace and other large Miami malls succeeded in inserting language to ban county money from being spent on the project. Triple Five fought the restrictions, calling them illegal and unfair, but Jordan was the only commissioner to vote against them.
And while Triple Five did not ask for government assistance publicly, Gimenez said the request was made early on in the county’s talks with the Canadian company, best known as the owner of Minnesota’s Mall of America. About two weeks after his county-funded trip to visit American Dream in New Jersey, Gimenez played host to Triple Five partner Eskandar Ghermezian in the mayor’s 29th floor office in County Hall. He said the meeting included a discussion of the potential for county financial help and the restrictions against them.
Along with next steps on the new off-ramps and roadwork needed to comply with transportation requirements for American Dream, Gimenez said the two sides also discussed “what incentives may be available from the state and county.”
“We reminded them,” Gimenez said, “about the resolution from the county.”
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the lawyer and lobbyist representing Triple Five in Miami-Dade talks, said only that the company had “inquired” about incentives that “may be available” from Miami-Dade.
In New Jersey, Triple Five now has a showcase of both the American Dream concept of a retail theme park, and the way governments can help build one.
Triple Five is the third major developer at the former Xanadu site, taking it over in 2011 after a former effort at a destination shopping mall next to an NFL football stadium failed. The new owner quickly fell behind schedule, too, scrapping a schedule that once had the company planning an Opening Day ahead of the 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium next door. October only brought a partial opening, with the amusement park and NHL-sized skating rink open to the public but the mall, waterpark, ski slope and other attractions are still under construction.
Government-backed financing was key to reviving the project. Of the $3.2 billion needed to build it, $300 million came from bonds borrowed against a portion of future sales tax revenue collected from the American Dream project. Another $800 million comes from bonds borrowed against a portion of future taxes Triple Five must pay on its property to the surrounding borough of East Rutherford. Those aren’t officially property taxes, but payments in lieu of taxes — a workaround by local and state governments to collect money from the government-owned and tax-exempt Meadowlands complex.
“I have a problem with the state of New Jersey giving $1 billion to this company,” said Mike Doherty, a Republican member of the New Jersey Senate. “Hopefully they’re smarter in Miami than they are in New Jersey.”
James Cassella, the mayor of East Rutherford, said the tax exemptions of the Meadowlands site gave his government little leverage in the American Dream deal and that he’s happy to be receiving yearly payments from Triple Five starting at more than $2 million and eventually hitting $7 million. That’s still small compared to the nearly $40 million going to debt on the project each year, but Cassella said a hefty local tax bill would have killed American Dream at the Meadowlands.
“It wasn’t feasible. They wouldn’t have built it,” he said. Cassella also said he’d be surprised if American Dream Miami went up without public assistance. “I don’t see them doing it without asking,” he said.
The county-dollar restrictions passed in May 2018 cover special tax districts that could let American Dream recoup some of its property taxes, along with “bond financing, grants, loans or subsidies.” It does not cover assistance from Florida, or a limited number of existing economic-development programs in Miami-Dade.
The restrictions were ratified by resolution, meaning a simple majority vote can overturn them at any time. A county mayor can veto commission votes, adding the potential urgency for Triple Five ahead of the 2020 elections. Gimenez is leaving office due to term limits, and two candidates to replace him, former mayor Alex Penelas and current commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, are critics of the project. Levine Cava was the one vote against approval of American Dream’s land-use application, and Triple Five funded a challenger to her 2018 reelection campaign.
She said she doubted an effort to overturn the subsidy restrictions would draw support from the current commission. “It was a very clear expression at the time of the vote,” she said.
Last week, Ghermezian briefly met with Jose “Pepe” Diaz, the Miami-Dade commissioner who sponsored the subsidy restrictions. “They want him to go visit the mall,” said Diaz spokeswoman Olga Vega. Diaz, whose district includes the American Dream site, hasn’t decided whether to accept the invitation, she said.
So far, Triple Five can show off only a partial version of the American Dream concept in New Jersey. Construction workers were still painting walls and laying tile for the retail section of the 90-acre complex during the Oct. 25 opening of the Nickelodeon amusement park inside. The Dreamworks water park and the Snow Park, complete with a ski slope, are expected to be running by December, with the full shopping complex ready for visitors by March.
Construction updates filed with bond regulators show most of the features are close to completion, and American Dream had snow machines running during the recent visits by the Miami delegations. “It was 22 degrees in there. I only had on a suit,” said Eric Knowles, head of the Miami-Dade Chamber, a leading advocate for black-owned businesses. “I didn’t stay in very long. And I grew up in Baltimore.”
Walker, the political consultant, said the trip was designed to give “local supporters” of American Dream a chance to see the New Jersey project. “It was a very good trip,” she said. “It was good opportunity to see what it could mean for Miami-Dade County.”
Triple Five paid for the trip, including a one-night hotel stay, according to Knowles and Johnson, the pastor at the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church. Johnson said he volunteered his time to speak before the commission on behalf of American Dream, and that the company’s only payment was when Walker, working for American Dream, picked up a $500 lunch tab at Miami’s Jackson Soul Food for parishioners after one of the meetings.
Knowles said his interest in the trip was to continue pressing American Dream for opportunities for local businesses. “I think it would be a great boon for the community,” he said.
Even though Triple Five won approval for the Miami-Dade project 18 months ago, it still needs permits and administrative approval for its building plan. But the company has yet to submit site plans to the county, a spokeswoman said. Robert Gorlow, a local consultant for Triple Five, said last month he expected construction to start in about two years.
After his Oct. 30 meeting in Miami with Gimenez, Ghermezian referred most questions to Gorlow and Diaz de la Portilla as they headed for the lobby. Asked how the Miami project was doing, Ghermezian replied: “Come and see. Come to New Jersey, and you’ll say: ‘Oh, I see.’”
This post was updated to correct the sources of county assistance not covered by the restrictions Miami-Dade imposed on the American Dream Miami project.