Miami-Dade County

Florida bill could provide tax funds for American Dream Miami

Rendering of American Dream Miami, a retail theme park slated to cover 200 acres near Miami Lakes.
Rendering of American Dream Miami, a retail theme park slated to cover 200 acres near Miami Lakes.

A Florida bill could have county property taxes easing the development tab for the proposed American Dream Miami retail theme park in northwest Miami-Dade.

The broad land-use bill, sponsored by one of the mega-mall’s lawyers who also serves as a state senator, was amended in late January to allow counties to form special tax districts for funding infrastructure work around economic-development projects.

Senate Bill 1190 does not mention any specific projects, but a summary of the legislation circulated Thursday by the county’s lobbying team said of the amendment: “This language is targeted at the proposed megamall in Northwest Miami-Dade.”

Triple Five, owner of Minnesota’s Mall of America, plans to bring the country’s largest retail facility to undeveloped land near Miami Lakes. American Dream Miami would offer 200 acres of shopping and entertainment, including an indoor ski slope and submarine rides. Under the bill, the districts’ maximum size would be 300 acres.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, is a land-use lawyer and county lobbyist. As a partner at Arnstein and Lehr in Miami, he represents a Triple Five subsidiary in its push to win local approval of the largest development in the county’s history.

Diaz de la Portilla’s original bill focused on the state’s growth-management laws, and did not include language authorizing the new tax districts. That was added by a Gulf Coast senator in late January at a committee hearing Diaz de la Portilla attended, and stuck with the legislation through various write-throughs and amendments.

The idea of creating a special tax district for American Dream Miami did come up in a recent private meeting Diaz de la Portilla requested with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s spokesman. While most of the Feb. 19 meeting focused on the mall’s development plans, Hernández said Gimenez told Diaz de la Portilla he did not want local property taxes going toward the project.

“Mayor Gimenez does not support tax increment financing for the American Dream Miami project,” Hernández said.

In an interview, Diaz de la Portilla noted the tax-district language came from a Gulf Coast senator who had introduced similar legislation last year, and was simply tacked onto his growth-management bill. Since the districts could be created statewide, he said the legislation shouldn’t be seen as helping American Dream Miami.

“It applies to all 67 counties,” he said of the tax-district language. “If counties don’t want to use it, they don’t have to use it.”

The proposed tax-district legislation could be a boon for large developments, since it would allow property taxes generated by their projects to pay for sewage hook-ups, roadway improvements and other infrastructure costs typically paid by the private sector.

Under the proposed law, counties could set up economic-development districts that siphon away new property taxes caused by growing tax rolls. Those dollars would otherwise head for the county’s general fund and pay for police, transit, roads and other everyday government expenses.

Known as “tax increment financing,” the districts would spend money generated either by rising real estate values or new construction only within the districts themselves. For American Dream Miami, a $4 billion project, those new tax dollars could be significant. A consultant’s report that Triple Five filed in December estimated the theme park would pay about $13 million a year in property taxes to Miami-Dade.

Money generated in the economic-development districts would be spent within their boundaries to boost economic activity. The tax dollars couldn’t be spent actually building the American Dream Miami mall or any other for-profit venture — the bill states “funds may not be used for the construction of buildings used solely for commercial or retail purposes.”

But the money could subsidize expenses developers would otherwise have to cover, including utility hook-ups, improvements to nearby roads and fees associated with damaging wetlands. The bill also lists mass-transit facilities as eligible for the money.

Diaz de la Portilla’s original bill did not include any language on taxes. That was introduced at a Jan. 28 meeting of the Community Affairs Committee by Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Republican lawmaker representing the New Port Richey area. Diaz de la Portilla serves on that committee, and the amendment passed unanimously. Similar language exists in House Bill 1361, sponsored by Rep. Mike La Rosa of St. Cloud.

Simpson’s office said the senator proposed similar language in the 2015 legislative session, and that it was designed to help projects throughout Florida.

A video of the Community Affairs hearing shows Simpson speaking briefly on behalf of the last-minute amendment, which he noted only authorizes local government to create the districts if they want to.

“It gives them another tool in their tool box to utilize for economic development within their jurisdiction,” he said.