Miami-Dade commissioners backed tapping new property taxes to borrow $9 million for SkyRise Miami, a funding plan opposed by the project’s hometown mayor.
With only three No votes, county support for the planned 1,000-foot observation tower passed by a comfortable margin Tuesday afternoon. The decision marked a comeback for SkyRise developer Jeff Berkowitz, since the spending proposal nearly died in a 6-6 tie last month. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado objected, saying he had pledged to city voters that no tax dollars would go to SkyRise when he championed it in a referendum over the summer.
Miami voters overwhelmingly approved the SkyRise project in August, and the money comes from a $2.9 billion borrowing program passed in a Miami-Dade referendum 10 years ago. County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson cited public support as one reason for switching her November No vote to a Yes on Tuesday.
“Who am I to turn around and say the voters didn’t know what they were voting for?” she said.
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SkyRise, a tourist attraction that expects to employ about 600 people, still needs to negotiate a grant agreement with Miami-Dade. It only gets the money once the project is up and running. Berkowitz is raising the bulk of the $430 million needed for the 1,000-foot tower overseas through a federal program that grants green cards to foreign investors who put up at least $500,000 for a U.S. project. After the vote, he said having the local government’s backing will be key in recruiting more than 500 investors he’s seeking in Asia and elsewhere.
“It sends the message to China … and all over the world that Dade County supports SkyRise Miami,” Berkowitz told reporters. The waterfront tourist attraction planned for city-owned waterfront is billed as the “Eiffel Tower of Miami,” though Berkowitz said of his project: “I think it’s better looking than the Eiffel Tower.”
Berkowitz needed Miami voters’ approval to build the tower next to Bayside Marketplace, and one of his campaign slogans was “No Cost to the City.” Though his pursuit of Miami-Dade dollars hadn’t been made public, he had written city officials about his request for the county cash months before the referendum.
After the Nov. 5 tie at the county commission, he and his lobbyist, Brian May, set about winning over opponents and managed to flip two: Edmonson and Sally Heyman. Two others, Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Juan C. Zapata, left after a lunchtime holiday party, but Berkowitz had enough Yes votes to win even if they had stayed to oppose the project.
Berkowitz gave $28,000 in contributions to commissioners this year, making him No. 20 on the Miami Herald’s list of top campaign donors to incumbents. May’s firm, Floridian Partners, gave $39,000, snagging the No. 12 slot. Berkowitz was also a top supporter of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s past campaigns.
Voting against SkyRise were Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Daniella Levine Cava, and Xavier Suarez. Joining Edmonson and Heyman on the Yes side: Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, and Dennis Moss. Javier Souto, the commissioner whose absence caused the Nov. 5 tie, also missed Tuesday’s SkyRise vote.
On the Yes side, only Diaz, Heyman and Monestime were up for reelection this year, and Berkowitz and related companies contributed about $5,000 to each of the efforts.
Gimenez made SkyRise funding a priority this fall, and he was part of the effort to round up Yes votes leading up to the meeting. The win came hours after Gimenez secured approval to divert about $570 million in property taxes through 2044 to Miami Beach in order to fund a major renovation of the city’s convention center.
Only two commissioners, Bovo and Zapata, cast No votes against the package of legislation needed to add 22 years to a special Miami Beach taxing district established in the 1990s to fight “blight” in the northern edge of South Beach. The area now boasts some of the poshest commercial real estate in the country, including Lincoln Road and the Loews hotel.
Gimenez agreed to back the extension as part of a deal with Miami Beach to delay $32 million in payments Miami-Dade owes the city through 2016— deferred costs that helped the mayor close a funding gap for this year’s police budget.
“It’s more than an embarrassment to have to use [taxing-district] money for something that clearly no longer meets the definition of slum and blight,” said Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who voted for the extension. “I feel like we have a straight jacket.”
County dollars were one of the last major question marks for the $590 million renovation of the center, which Gimenez portrayed as crucial to the countywide tourism industry.
“The convention center is a lynchpin,” he told commissioners.
Gimenez this week announced a new hiring initiative, and aides see the convention-center renovation as extending his message of job growth going into a reelection campaign in 2016. They’re eying a possible challenge by Regalado’s daughter, school board member Raquel Regalado, and the SkyRise vote presented another proxy battle between the two camps.
The SkyRise vote came after a string of other allocations by the commission from a $75 million economic-development program approved as a tiny part of a $2.9 billion ballot initiative that county voters approved in 2004. Though the program itself wasn’t on the ballot, commissioners attached it to the bond initiative before the vote to provide county dollars for private developers’ infrastructure costs.
Commissioners on Tuesday also authorized $6 million for the Overtown Gateway commercial complex, $5 million for a Larkin for-profit medical campus in southern Dade, and last month endorsed $14 million for a theme park by Zoo Miami and $10 million for two ventures at the Opa-locka airport.
Sosa and other critics slammed the Gimenez administration for not advertising the program, and questioned how the recipients managed to maneuver themselves in line for the money. Simon Ferro, a lobbyist and father of the mayor’s chief of staff, represented the Larkin project, which Comissioner Dennis Moss praised as a “game-changer” for a part of Naranja that “used to be known as the dead zone after Hurricane Andrew.”
Alex Ferro said his father’s involvement prompted him to recuse himself from all discussions on the grants.
The money for SkyRise, Larkin and other projects will come from the $2.9 billion Miami-Dade is borrowing for the 2004 program, and paid back with interest using the special property tax that funds voter-approved debt. That tax currently costs $45 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value, and is set to climb to $69 in 2016 as Miami-Dade’s borrowing expenses increase.
“In order to do this,” Sosa said of the grants, “we need to raise taxes.”