The largely undeveloped plot of land at PortMiami where David Beckham once wanted a soccer stadium is poised to test just how much the politics of Cuba have changed in Miami. County officials want to transform the waterfront property into a bustling terminal for ferries running between Miami and Cuba.
The initiative could position Miami as the prime jumping-off point for a fledgling ferry industry that hopes to provide affordable travel and shipping between the longtime enemies. And it marks a milestone for the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, which until now has not openly pursued economic opportunities with a country whose outlaw status has long been an axiom of local politics.
“We need to be prepared for when the situation is here, when the business is ready to launch,” port director Juan Kuryla said Wednesday. “We anticipate it’s going to be a flourishing business here in Miami.”
PortMiami isn’t the only Florida port interested in Cuba ferry service amid a dramatic warming of diplomacy and expansion of commerce between the U.S. and Cuba. Ferry companies also have talked about launching Florida-Cuba ferries from Key West, Port Everglades and Port Manatee on Florida’s west coast.
A new terminal for Cuba-bound ferries would go on the port’s southwest corner, a waterfront wedge of largely undeveloped land that overlooks downtown Miami and lately has been one of the most controversial pieces of county real estate.
Beckham’s bid for a soccer stadium met its first defeat there in 2014, when Royal Caribbean led the way in blocking plans to develop it into an entertainment center next to the cruise company’s port headquarters.
The soccer project briefly replaced the county’s 2011 development strategy for the 36-acre southwest corner— a master plan that included calls to build offices and hotels on the site in order to generate extra revenue for a port currently weighed down by about $1 billion in debt.
Miami officials and business leaders objected to the strategy, saying it presented unfair competition to the city’s downtown office district. Tensions rose higher in early 2014 when port officials went on a tax-funded trip to Asia promoting a plan for a far more ambition plan to build a 7-million-square foot World Trade Center Miami there.
Complicating the situation was a deed restriction on the port land, which used to be owned by Miami. The clause allowed the city to retake possession of the real estate if it ever ceased being used for port purposes. County lawyers and port officials said they weren’t aware of the restriction when the 2011 master plan was drafted, and that the decades-old reverter clause only came to light amid tension over the Beckham negotiations.
With Cuban ferry service now a priority, the Gimenez administration is parting ways with the 2011 master plan. Gimenez told city officials this week the county would no longer pursue commercial ventures there that weren’t directly tied to maritime uses. “The potential uses described in the Master Plan are no longer being considered by Mayor Gimenez’s administration,” Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said in a statement Wednesday.
The shift came during a Tuesday meeting at County Hall with Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso and city lawyers, scheduled to discuss the ongoing rift over the port’s reverter clause. After waiting 45 minutes for the mayor to arrive, Alfonso said his team was surprised when Gimenez announced that they were in for a short meeting.
“He mentioned there was going to be development related to port activities,” Alfonso said, “so there wasn’t much to discuss.”
Developers have been pining for the chance to pursue projects on the southwest corner, and the 13-member county commission holds ultimate say on what to do with the land. A commercial group wanting to build a hotel, expo center and marina there brought their plans to the commission last year, prompting the board to call for a formal request for bids from other developers.
Kuryla said that process will continue, but that his staff is pursuing the ferry terminal as a potential solution to the quandary over how to navigate the legal obstacles hanging over the land. “What’s better for us than creating another berth, for a very legitimate maritime purpose? Which is a ferry option,” he said.
He said companies from around the world have contacted PortMiami in hopes of launching ferry service to Cuba. Genting, the Malaysian casino company that hopes to open a resort in Miami, already runs a ferry between PortMiami and Bimini. That sort of ferry, with a cargo bay large enough to hold trucks and cars, is the same kind that would make runs to Havana and other Cuban cities. Recent port deals have allowed ship operators to construct terminal facilities as part of their lease arrangements, meaning public dollars aren’t used in the construction.
During the Beckham debate, Gimenez administration officials said soccer was a viable option because the southwest corner was surrounded by water too shallow to accommodate cruise or cargo ships. Ferries would require dredging, Kuryla said, but only to add about six or seven feet to waters that currently accommodate a fuel-spill ship that draws about 13 feet.
Current U.S. regulations allow for ferry service to Cuba, with Washington last year issuing its first batch of licenses to the ferry companies that are interested in operating throughout South Florida. But Cuban authorities have yet to give the green light, said Robert Muse, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in Cuba trade law and represents license-holder Baja Ferries USA.
“The U.S. wants this to happen,” Muse said. “The hold-up at the moment is on the Cuban end.”
The ferry plan would put the Cuban-born Gimenez in the position of advocating for a new commercial link with Cuba as his 2016 reelection race heats up. He’s facing Raquel Regalado, a school board member and daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, long a leading hard liner when it came to the Castro regime.
On Wednesday, Mayor Regalado said he would not oppose ferry service to Cuba. “It’s inevitable,” he said. Raquel Regalado said she did not yet have a position on the issue. Hernández, Gimenez’s spokesman, noted flights to Cuba have long flown out the county’s Miami International Airport and that a port ferry terminal would have no direct ties to Havana. “Miami-Dade County doesn’t conduct business with countries,” he said. “It conducts business with carriers.”
Rebeca Sosa, the county commissioner who has been the chief critic of the port master plan, said she was surprised to learn of the county’s pursuit of a possible ferry link with Cuba. Born in Cuba, Sosa came to Miami at age 9 in 1965.
One handicap facing potential ferry operators at the moment is a Cuban law that prohibits those born in Cuba from entering or leaving the country by boat. Sosa raised that issue in questioning Miami-Dade’s pursuit of Cuban ferries sailing out of the county port.
“It has to be both ways,” she said. “If we’re going to be do something [where] people are not going to be able to travel freely, that brings a lot of concerns.”
Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.
This post was updated to correct the year in which developers proposed a commercial complex for PortMiami’s southwest corner.