Miami-Dade County

For an air show in the Everglades, Miami-Dade revives an old battle

Marc  Henderson, Airport Manager of the Everglades Jetport, walks a lonely runway in the Big Cypress Swamp where the training strip sits 28 miles west of Krome Ave. in this Jan. 3, 2002, file photo.
Marc Henderson, Airport Manager of the Everglades Jetport, walks a lonely runway in the Big Cypress Swamp where the training strip sits 28 miles west of Krome Ave. in this Jan. 3, 2002, file photo. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Every other June, the center of the world’s aviation industry shifts to Paris for a commercial air show that is the de rigueur sales event for Boeing, Airbus and other giants in the jet industry.

Now Miami-Dade County wants to bring some of that business to the Everglades.

On an isolated county airport surrounded by the Big Cypress National Preserve, local officials see the future home of the Miami International Aerospace Show. The high-flying expo could launch as early as January 2017 as the largest show of its kind in the Americas, giving Miami a chance to tout its homegrown aviation sector to industry heavyweights.

“If you get people to come here in the aviation business, and spend a week here — see the airports and the training facilities and what’s available — there’s likelihood they may want to bring their businesses here,” said Jack Osterholt, a deputy county mayor.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is leading a delegation to the Paris Air Show this week to pitch the idea, his second such mission in three years. But the real work awaits back home, where environmentalists are gearing up for another fight over the air show’s designated site.

Nearly 50 years ago, the remote facility was at the center of an epic battle over building the world’s largest airport there. Called the Jetport, it galvanized South Florida’s conservation movement, which used momentum from its victory to create the Big Cypress preserve.

“This is going to be opposed by everybody,” said Jonathan Ullman, the National Sierra Club's Everglades representative in Miami. “It’s the Jetport battle all over again.”

Planning documents describe what would be a major tourism event an hour’s drive from Miami into the Everglades: 50 aircraft on-hand to perform “aerobatic” displays for buyers, 50,000 trade-show attendees and another 100,000 people once the show opened to the general public.

Officials from the Gimenez administration say they’re sensitive to the environmental concerns for the 900-acre airport site, and wouldn’t move forward if putting an airshow on 30 acres there was considered a risk to the Everglades. They point out that the facility, officially the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, already averages about a dozen take-offs or landings throughout the day, most of them involving an aircraft just briefly making contact with a runway for training or testing purposes.

Planes at commercial air shows spend most of their time on the ground, since would-be buyers want to tour them. So organizers say the Miami show wouldn’t bring much of an increase to air traffic over Big Cypress. They’re also promising to not move beyond the airport’s current footprint, and would use temporary showrooms, catering facilities, bathrooms and support facilities to allow for the entire show to be removed once the four- or five-day event concludes.

“We’ll take every step so that when the event is over, it will be just like it was when we got there,” said Osterholt, who oversees both aviation and economic development. “We don’t see any permanent changes to the air site.”

With environmental concerns a top hurdle, Gimenez officials plan to flip the potential liability into a marketing advantage, according to internal emails obtained through a public-records request.

The air show “will capitalize on its location within an environmentally sensitive area to highlight the importance of reducing the aviation industry’s environmental impacts,” reads one bullet point in a set of talking points that executives at Miami International Airport sent to the mayor’s office in late 2014. Promotional materials Miami-Dade created for the Paris show note the event “will be the only eco-friendly air show of its kind, with a focus on sustainability and green tech.”

The Dade-Collier airfield wasn’t the county’s first choice for an air show. It sits about 50 miles from downtown Miami on the two-lane Tamiami Trail, and is so far west that almost all of it lies within Collier County. One summary of a November planning meeting, first published by the Eye on Miami blog, said Gimenez wanted the state to consider closing the Trail to traffic during peak hours of the show in order to use both lanes.

Homestead was Miami-Dade’s preferred spot for an aviation expo. Miami-Dade owns a site next to the Air Reserve Base there, and in 2011 county commissioners earmarked about $8 million in economic-development funds to ready the land for a show. That effort flamed out later that year when the Defense Department rejected using the base’s runways for the show, saying it didn’t want to use military property for a commercial activity.

With Homestead out, the Gimenez administration shifted its effort to Dade-Collier. During the county’s last trip to the Paris Air Show, in 2013, the Beacon Council, the county’s economic development partnership, drew up a brochure touting the site’s potential for a a Miami air show. Among the selling points: “beautiful South Florida January weather” and a location “uninhibited by residential and commercial developments.”

Even before the Pentagon said no, Miami-Dade’s air-show ambitions were seen as a steep climb. With Paris already a costly but essential trek for airplane manufacturers, some industry leaders weren’t eager to see yet another show compete for their marketing budgets, said Frank Nero, head of the Beacon Council until 2013.

London, Dubai, and India already hold their own major shows, and Mexico started one this year. That would leave Miami to either steal market-share from established shows or find a way to justify another stop on the industry calendar.

This will be Gimenez’s second trip to Paris as part of the air-show push. He and wife, Lourdes, paid their own air fare, but the Miami-Dade trade mission is picking up a $1,500 tab for four nights of lodging for the mayor while he is in Paris, according to spokesman Michael Hernández.

Emilio González, director of Miami International Airport, said the Miami version would be much smaller than Paris, which accommodates about 2,200 exhibitors (versus 400 anticipated in Miami) and some 400,000 attendees (versus 150,000). And while Miami could eventually grow into a significant draw, Gonzalez predicts a modest debut should Miami-Dade get into the air-show business.

“There’s always going to be a Year One,” he said from Paris. “Were we to decide to do something like this, you’ve got to start small.”

Though Homestead was more convenient as an expo site, Dade-Collier offers some advantages. Its lone runway stretches 10,500 feet, longer than three of the four at MIA. Deep into the Everglades, the facility provides plenty of uninhabited crash sites if something goes wrong, and eliminates concerns about municipal noise ordinances.

And with an airport that’s almost vacant except for the runway, county officials say they can temporarily remake the site into a custom-made showcase for aviation executives. A layout drafted for the 2013 show called for bringing in 100 “chalets” — luxury, hard-walled tents — for exhibitors to rent. Buses would shuttle participants from Miami — and possibly from Collier County hotels, too.

The plan is to outsource management of the show to a for-profit company, which could absorb any losses but also keep profits. Internal documents show a draft budget of $8 million, but that doesn’t include the category labeled “site improvements.”

County officials say no final decisions have been on the show, but emphasize they’ll be limited by the existing perimeter of the airport itself. A “concept summary” for the 2017 show that the Beacon Council sent MIA in May 2014 detail much larger ambitions. They lay out an 18-acre show footprint as Phase 1, but then a much larger area if Miami-Dade could win federal approval to move into an additional 145 acres outside of the airport.

Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, said she’s concerned about an air show opening up the door to more long-lasting activity at the former Jetport site.

“My instinct is this is getting the camel’s nose under the tent,” she said. “I think we need to find a better location.”

The 1970 defeat of the Jetport plan is still considered a milestone event for the Everglades movement, given how brazen that plan was. Miami-Dade’s idea was to clear out 25,000 acres of Everglades to make way for the Jetport, with six runways capable of serving both the Miami and Naples markets.

Strong resistance in Miami and Washington eventually doomed the effort, and then led to President Gerald Ford establishing the Big Cypress preserve in 1974. Miami-Dade was left with the land it purchased, and eventually converted the runway into a training airport.

There have been past efforts to jump-start commercial activity there, including short-lived plans to drill for oil and create an off-road racing center. Environmentalists rose up to oppose both initiatives, and say they’re ready for another fight.

“It’s not as bad as the Jetport,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, “but it’s a step in that direction.”

This article was updated to include new information about the expenses covered by the mission for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

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