Miami-Dade County

Debate on SkyRise’s county funding was delayed until after city vote

Rendering of the SkyRise tower.
Rendering of the SkyRise tower. ARQUITECTONICA

SkyRise Miami’s pursuit of millions in county dollars was on its way to a public debate well before a city referendum on the project, but the funding proposal was tabled by aides to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, according to internal emails.

Two weeks before a July hearing on economic-development grants that Gimenez wanted county commissioners to approve, SkyRise Miami was on the mayor’s draft list of recommended projects. At the time, the observation tower’s developer, Jeff Berkowitz, was campaigning to win approval of SkyRise in a Miami referendum under the slogan “No Cost to the City.”

But when Gimenez’s economic-development director emailed colleagues on June 24 with a list of SkyRise “talking points” for media inquiries prior to the hearing, the mayor’s communications chief, Michael Hernández, wrote back: “I have concerns. When are you all free to talk?”

The emails, released Tuesday in response to a public-records request by the Miami Herald, do not reveal why SkyRise was left off the July 10 agenda of the commission’s economic development committee. But the result was that SkyRise’s request for $9 million in grant dollars tied to property taxes did not make headlines until well after city voters approved the project.

That sequence sparked controversy last month when Miami’s mayor came out against giving SkyRise county dollars, saying he would not have campaigned for the project if he had known it wanted local government money.

Berkowitz’s staff notified Miami officials of the request for county money months before the Aug. 26 referendum, but Mayor Tomás Regalado said he hadn’t gotten the news. Both Berkowitz and the Gimenez administration contend it made no sense to ask commissioners to consider a county grant for SkyRise if city voters could kill the project weeks later.

“I believe there was a consensus that having the County Commission deliberate, debate, and decide it was premature, given the fact that the referendum was scheduled for Aug. 26,” Berkowitz wrote in a statement Tuesday.

In the county emails, there’s no hint that Berkowitz, a top campaign donor to Gimenez and commissioners, tried to stop the SkyRise item from making it on the committee agenda. At the time, the mayor was preparing for a budget proposal with hundreds of layoffs for police and librarians, and the SkyRise item may have struck Hernández as particularly ill-timed.

On Tuesday, Hernández said his “concerns” were tied to SkyRise still needing voter approval, though the email exchanges make no reference to any timing worries as the administration prepared for the July 10 meeting.

SkyRise and five other businesses seeking a total of nearly $30 million in county economic-development grants now face a key vote Wednesday before the county commission, with the board’s chairwoman proposing to scrap the current crop of applicants and start over. Each project has already passed a committee vote, and supporters are hoping they have enough votes on the commission to approve the funds.

At issue is a $75 million borrowing plan for economic-development grants that was authorized a decade ago, and would be funded by a special property tax that pays for county debt.

The grant program was a tiny part of the Building Better Communities bond initiative passed by voters in 2004, which cleared the way for $2.9billion in borrowing to build museums, repair bridges, and fund hundreds of other public construction projects. The $75million pool for economic-development grants must be used to pay for “infrastructure” costs that new businesses face, such as road extensions, sewer hook-ups, parking garages and similar expenses.

Even before Gimenez added SkyRise to his economic-grant plan, his initiative drew political fire for its ties to both property-tax bills and some well-placed applicants.

Former Congresswoman Carrie Meek’s foundation won administration backing for a $5million grant to develop 125 acres of county land at the Opa-locka airport that it must start developing next year or start paying rental fees. The Meek Foundation has landed a private-sector developer for the effort, but currently has no paid staff or permanent address, according to interviews with foundation representatives.

Wayne Rosen, a developer and a top contributor in county races, also was recommended for a $5million grant for a charter-school and residential complex he’s planning in Palmetto Bay. The proposal divided Palmetto Bay’s village council, which on Monday voted to delay an endorsement decision until after Wednesday’s county meeting.

“I think this is payback for generous campaign contributions on behalf of this developer,” said council member Joan Lindsay. Rosen argues that the project, which includes a center to train adults to work in the manufacturing industry, meshes perfectly with Palmetto’s plan to revive its downtown. “It’s a catalyst,” he said. “They’ve been talking about doing a downtown center for ever.”

Also in line for $5million grants: a complex of private jet-terminals at Opa-locka owned by Miami banker Leonard Abess, and the Larkin for-profit medical school in southern Dade. A smaller Opa-locka outfit would also get a $500,000 grant.

Pushback over Gimenez’s original grants proposal led to a last-minute retreat several weeks ago, along with the public revelation that the mayor wanted SkyRise to receive a large chunk of the money.

On the eve of another committee hearing on the grants, this one on Oct. 16, Gimenez announced that he no longer wanted commissioners to approve his original slate of projects. “They’re good projects,” he told the Herald. “But they’re not really game-changing projects.” Instead, Gimenez said he wanted the money given to more ambitious ventures, including SkyRise and a $930million theme park planned for outside Zoo Miami called Miami Wilds.

The following day, commissioners lashed out at the mayor’s switch. Lynda Bell, the outgoing commissioner who chairs the economic development committee, refused to let a Gimenez deputy address the panel. By a series of 3-to-1 votes, the committee endorsed five of Gimenez’s original six projects as well as his new addition of SkyRise. (The proposal by Miami Wilds, which wants $14million in grant money, has not yet been forwarded to commissioners.)

With the full commission set to take up the projects Wednesday, Gimenez may still modify his stance on the projects.

A batch of Nov. 5 memos from the mayor attached to the meeting’s online agenda repeats his endorsements of the five original projects. But the documents appear to simply have new dates on out-of-date memos, since they still identify Josh Gelfman as the point person for the grant initiative. Gelfman, formerly Gimenez’s economic-development director, resigned last month.

Asked to clarify, Hernández would not say which projects Gimenez now endorses.

“Mayor Gimenez will support game-changing projects that can potentially create hundreds if not thousands of jobs especially if those jobs will be in areas of Miami-Dade County with high levels of unemployment and underemployment,” Hernández said in a statement. In an interview, he added: “The mayor will make his positions on each of the different projects known at the meeting.”