Miami-Dade County

SkyRise funding stalls; Miami Wilds gets $14 million

‘ICONIC BUILDING’:  Mayor Carlos Gimenez, right, calls SkyRise a ‘game-changer’ for the local economy.
‘ICONIC BUILDING’: Mayor Carlos Gimenez, right, calls SkyRise a ‘game-changer’ for the local economy. El Nuevo Herald

SkyRise Miami failed to secure $9 million in county funding Wednesday, after some Miami-Dade commissioners pushed back against public dollars for a project that touted private financing in a recent city referendum.

The planned 1,000-foot observation tower split the 13-member county commission 6-6 on the proposed funding, which is part of a larger economic-development program paid for with property taxes. Commissioner Javier Souto was away from the dais for the well-anticipated vote, and his fellow commissioners agreed to resolve the tie by taking up SkyRise again at a future meeting.

SkyRise has split the county’s political leaders, with Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado urging commissioners to reject county funding for the $430 million project and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez touting it as a true “game-changer” for the local economy.

“This is an iconic building that will probably end up becoming a symbol of Miami,” Gimenez told commissioners. “The Eiffel Tower of Miami.”

But the commission’s chairwoman, Rebeca Sosa, branded county funding as a betrayal of Miami voters, who in late August approved building SkyRise on city land amid campaign promises that the project would bring “No Cost to the City.”

“They were told not even one penny out of their pocket would be used for this,” Sosa said. “If they were in the process of soliciting funding, it should have been made public before the vote.”

With the stalemate, SkyRise missed out on payouts that Miami-Dade commissioners approved for three businesses from a $75 million economic-development earmark that has sat idle for a decade. Spending the money will mean a small increase in county property taxes, according to budget forecasts, as Miami-Dade borrows the funds awarded to businesses for infrastructure costs.

A majority of commissioners backed $13.5 million for Miami Wilds, a $930 million theme park that 20th Century Fox wants to build on land next to Zoo Miami, and $5 million each for a long-delayed Opa-locka Airport venture backed by former congresswoman Carrie Meek’s foundation and an adjoining private-jet complex that’s already been built by wealthy Miami banker Leonard Abess and partners.

Commissioners also rejected a $5 million grant for a charter-school and residential complex in Palmetto Bay, and postponed a vote on the planned Larkin for-profit medical campus in South Miami-Dade. Wayne Rosen, the developer behind the Palmetto Bay project, said it was dead without the county dollars.

“Maybe we’ll sell some pieces off,” said Rosen, a prominent campaign donor in local races. “But we’re not going to move forward.”

Controversy followed Gimenez’s effort to activate economic-development borrowing authorized as a tiny part of the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities bond program that voters approved in 2004. Critics charged that the program matched connected firms with the tax money, and questioned why the funds aren’t being saved to lure a major corporate headquarters to the area. One $500,000 grant commissioners approved Wednesday would go to an Opa-locka hangar in which eight people are expected to be employed.

After facing initial fire, Gimenez changed course last month and dropped his endorsement of the hangar project and the other applicants in favor of a new round of larger ventures: SkyRise, Miami Wilds and at least one new development Gimenez said he isn’t ready to make public. On Wednesday, Gimenez amended his position, saying he also backed the Meek and Larkin projects.

The mayor acknowledged a “12th hour” change in course, but said he wanted the money to go to businesses able to make a significant impact on the county’s economy. But he conceded his administration had not advertised for proposals beyond postings on the county website, and that picking the best applicants was a matter of judgment.

“Game-changing is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “My definition of a game-changing project is something that will create hundreds if not thousands of new jobs … that can change the character of an area and really advance economic development.”

Commissioners rejected a plan by Sosa to establish a competitive process for the remaining dollars after Wednesday’s awards. The money is used to reimburse businesses for expenses considered “public infrastructure,” including sewage hook-ups, roadways and parking facilities open to all.

The funds would be borrowed by selling Building Better Communities bonds, and the debt paid for through a special property tax that backs voter-approved borrowing. County forecasts show the debt tax increasing about 50 percent in 2016 and going higher for several years after that, thanks to borrowing tied to large public infrastructure projects.

The economic-development grants would make up a tiny part of the increase for a debt tax that currently costs about $45 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value. Using county estimates for other debt payments, the entire $75 million grant program would cost about one dollar per $100,000 of a property’s taxable value.

SkyRise developer Jeff Berkowitz said he pledged to use only private dollars for the tower itself, while county and state money would pay for improvements around the attraction, including an access road. Berkowitz predicts more than 3 million visitors a year would make SkyRise a bigger draw in Miami than the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. A SkyRise market study predicts 16 percent of Miami’s visitors will come to SkyRise, compared to the 14 percent who visit the Eiffel Tower when in the City of Light.

“SkyRise is a game-changer by anybody’s definition,” Berkowitz told commissioners during Wednesday’s meeting. He pointed out that he sent Miami a letter in the spring laying out his pursuit of Miami-Dade dollars, months before the Aug. 26 referendum that cleared the way for SkyRise’s construction on city land. “I have been up front, transparent and absolutely clear from the very beginning.”

In a recent letter to county commissioners, Miami Mayor Regalado urged the county to reject SkyRise’s request. Regalado said he “can’t go back in time, nor apologize for my representations” that public money wouldn’t be used for the project, but he told commissioners “YOU can do something about it,” in the Oct. 29 letter, which was released Wednesday.

The SkyRise funding vote hit a snag Wednesday when Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes parts of downtown Miami, said she would vote against the money. Edmonson had voted for all of the other grant proposals, but said of SkyRise: “My citizens don’t want it.” The harshest words came from another supporter of the other grants: Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor, who ridiculed SkyRise as “an inverted toe-nail clipper” and an “eyesore.”

Joining Edmonson and Suarez on the “no” side were Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Sally Heyman, Sosa, Juan C. Zapata.

Berkowitz, a top campaign donor to Gimenez and some commissioners, can bring back the SkyRise proposal in hopes of finding a seventh vote. Souto, who was missing during the SkyRise decision, had backed some of the grant applications but voted against others. He hasn’t taken a public position on SkyRise.

Gimenez told commissioners it didn’t make sense to withhold $9 million from SkyRise to placate Miami residents, since the city taxpayers would end up paying their share of whatever project eventually received the county grant money. If SkyRise doesn’t get it, the $9 million would go to “something that may not even be in their city,” he said. “Everybody in the county is going to pay for this.”

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