Miami-Dade County

SkyRise deal clears first hurdle

A rendering of the SkyRise Miami observation tower in downtown Miami.
A rendering of the SkyRise Miami observation tower in downtown Miami. ARQUITECTONICA

SkyRise Miami received a green light this week from county negotiators for a $9 million subsidy, but other high-profile projects face much harsher reviews over the number of promised jobs tied to the public money.

At issue is a $75 million economic-development fund backed by Miami-Dade property taxes. The administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez activated the long-dormant fund last summer, but the proposed allocations attracted controversy from the start as critics questioned why certain businesses were in line for the money.

County commissioners ultimately allocated all $75 million, though only some recipients had the backing of the Gimenez administration.

A memo issued late this week serves as a status report on negotiations between Gimenez staffers and 10 grant recipients for the final agreements needed to allocate the money. Commissioners must ratify all of the contracts, setting up a second battle over the dollars as the board decides whether to proceed with awarding money to projects flagged by the mayor’s office.

Jack Osterholt, the deputy mayor in charge of the grants, said applications listed as problematic largely wanted to change key provisions of the agreements involving job creation. “The ones who said, “We are going to dramatically change the number of jobs’ are the ones we couldn’t deal with at all,” Osterholt said.

The Sept. 3 memo essentially divides the 10 projects into two tiers: four were categorized as “requiring little additional negotiation,” and the rest as “requiring significant additional negotiation.”

SkyRise, a 1,000-foot observation tower planned for downtown Miami approved for a $9 million grant, landed in the favorable first category. It’s the most politically sensitive for Gimenez. His lone announced 2016 challenger, school board member Raquel Regalado, is suing over a 2014 Miami referendum that approved SkyRise as a “privately funded” project before Miami-Dade approved the grant.

Also landing in the first tier with SkyRise were the Larkin Health Sciences medical campus in Homestead, the River Landing retail and residential development in Miami and the Westview Business Park commercial complex on the site of the former Westview Country Club. Those projects were approved for grants between $5 million and $7.5 million.

The six landing in the second tier include Miami Wilds, an amusement park slated for land next to Zoo Miami, Miami Ocean Studios, a sprawling production complex planned near Miami Gardens, and Overtown Gateway, a residential development in Miami.

Audrey Edmonson, the county commissioner whose district includes the Overtown Gateway site, said the administration appears to be making it too hard for developers to actually secure the dollars that commissioners approved. “It appears that none of these people will be getting the money, and I think that’s wrong,” she said.

Gateway developer Barron Channer said he asked Miami-Dade to provide a $6 million grant upfront, rather than require the project be built first and the 423 pledged jobs delivered. He pointed to an earlier grant to the City of Miami from the $75 million fund to improve Flagler Street that had no hiring requirements or delays.

“There seems to be a certain amount of arbitrariness in mandating those terms for us,” he said.

For Ocean Studios, the job pledge for a $10 million grant went from 2,684 when the grant was approved in December to just 50 now. County officials wrote that the change came from calculating employees of the actual complex rather than jobs indirectly created by the opening of a major studio in Miami-Dade. The change means the grant went from costing $3,725 per job to $200,000 per job. Representatives of Ocean Studios could not be reached for comment.

Miami Wilds, the amusement park slated for land next to Zoo Miami, initially was listed as promising 2,800 jobs in exchange for a $13.5 million grant. Now the memo describes the project as pledging 400 in exchange for the money, with the grant application only tied to a $43 million water park that would be the first of two phases.

A spokesman for the project said the memo shouldn’t be viewed as a setback since it states more talks could lead to a closed deal.

“This is progress,” said Ric Katz, Miami Wild’s publicist. “We’re going to do the negotiations.”

The memo makes no recommendations in terms of the commission’s next steps. It could vote to order Gimenez to wrap up talks with the first tier of projects while the others stall, or press the administration to work out deals with all of them. Or it could do something more dramatic, like restart the process.

Upping the stakes is the fact that commissioners continue to approve new allocations from a $75 million fund that’s already spoken for. Throughout the year, commissioners approved other applicants to be first in line if any of the earlier deals fall through. New applicants include a private-jet hangar owned by Turnberry development and a bio-tech office park on land owned by the University of Miami.