Miami-Dade County

At Miami International Airport, a new divide over black-owned vendors

An America Airlines passenger plane takes off at Miami International Airport in Miami, Monday April 22, 2013.
An America Airlines passenger plane takes off at Miami International Airport in Miami, Monday April 22, 2013. AP

Soul food has helped stir up new tension from a familiar source of political friction: contracts at Miami International Airport.

The Jackson Soul Food restaurant is one of three black-owned businesses seeking new MIA contracts that have attracted the intervention of black Miami-Dade commissioners, who question whether the companies are getting fair treatment. Now a new advocate has joined the talks: former Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones. She was tapped by Jackson to serve as an intermediary with airport officials.

Spence-Jones, the popular former District 5 representative who was acquitted of corruption charges during a long-running battle with prosecutors, moved to Georgia after term limits ended her commission tenure in 2013. Her involvement in the MIA talks with Jackson Soul Food would mark a return to local government affairs for Spence-Jones, although in a statement she said the iconic Miami restaurant has not hired her for any work.

“I am only volunteering my time to assist them through this process, just as I would if any other small business asked for my support,” wrote Spence-Jones, who still has family in Miami but lives in the Atlanta area. “I applaud the efforts of the Board of County Commissioners for their efforts with supporting local Minority (African American, Cuban American and Haitian American) businesses going in the Miami International Airport.”

In February, Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan won support for legislation instructing MIA to negotiate leases with Jackson and the Chef Creole Haitian restaurant — an unusual move for a commission that typically approves contracts proposed by departments. Commissioner Dennis Moss is pursuing similar legislation for Concessions International, which is based in Atlanta and operates MIA outlets that include Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, McDonald’s and Einstein’s bagels.

There was a blatant attempt to mislead me.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss

The controversy revolves around two of the diciest topics in county politics: how influence impacts government contracts, and whether black-owned businesses are treated fairly in a political arena dominated by Cuban Americans.

“You have black concessionaires trying to do the same thing that Hispanics and others have tried to have done, and the same kind of consideration is not provided to them,” Moss, the most-senior of the 13-seat commission’s four black members, said in an interview.

MIA officials express bafflement at the situation, noting they were in discussions with the three businesses well before the commissioners got involved.

At a March 17 committee hearing, Moss sponsored legislation instructing MIA to negotiate a lease extension with Concessions International, saying the company hadn’t received the same speedy agreement that a similar vendor had. The same committee agenda included a separate request by MIA for commissioners to approve an extension to the Concession International lease.

“This is something we have intended to do,” said Emilio González, MIA’s director and a former head of immigration under the second Bush administration. “We’re working on parallel paths to the same results.”

The remarks came during one of the tensest exchanges in recent memory between a commissioner and department director. “There was blatant attempt to mislead me,” Moss told González.

“This pattern you’re talking about of us treating people differently is factually incorrect,” González said in response. “And I have to defend myself, and I have to defend my department.”

This pattern you’re talking about of us treating people differently is factually incorrect

MIA director Emilio González

The prickly moments over the black-owned businesses began after an October request by MIA to waive competitive bidding for a pair of businesses seeking airport space: a Cuban-food kiosk owned by Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and a clothing stop by Doral-based Perry Ellis. Commissioners approved the deals, and the pair took the last two spots in the airport’s “Marketplace,” a space in the busy Terminal D that a news release said was reserved for outlets offering a “a dash of Miami flavor to the dining and shopping options at MIA.”

Jordan later questioned why the marketplace didn’t have space for Chef Creole or Jackson Soul Food. She said she wanted MIA “to go out and seek those entities that are highly respected and successful in the Haitian community and the black community so we could get the full flavor of Miami at the airport.”

González said he’s made adding Haitian and other ethnic cuisines a priority for MIA as his staff seeks out a more cosmopolitan array of food choices for international travelers. But he said logistical issues, including the costs of building kitchens for Jackson and Chef Creole in an airport where many vendors prepare food off-site, have complicated matters.

“While the members of the County Commission and I may not always agree on methods and tactics, I always appreciate their input and feedback,” he said in a statement issued after an interview request. “Mayor Gimenez appointed me to strengthen MIA’s standing as a world-class global gateway, and that goal will continue to guide my decisions as Miami-Dade aviation director.”

Spence-Jones has not taken a public role with Jackson; her participation surfaced in MIA emails released through a public-records request. In a March 14 email about potential spaces at MIA, Jackson Soul Food asked an airport official to coordinate plans with the restaurant’s new representative, Spence-Jones.

Later that day, Spence-Jones wrote MIA officials an encouraging note. “We thank everyone for their support,” she wrote, “and we look forward to working with you and your team to bring Jackson’s to the Miami International Airport.”

First elected in 2005, Spence-Jones served as Miami’s lone African-American commissioner. She was the target of two corruption investigations, one involving her time as a city official before taking office, and another involving an alleged bribe solicited from a developer seeking her vote.

Spence-Jones denied both allegations, and easily won reelection in 2009, and then a special election sparked by her suspension over criminal charges. A jury acquitted Spence-Jones of the charges tied to her time in office, and prosecutors dropped their case involving the earlier charge.

Miami’s term-limit rules, upheld in court, prevented Spence-Jones from seeking her commission seat again in 2013 despite her being suspended from office while facing charges. After the term-limit ruling, she was considered a possible candidate for higher office, including the County Commission. But in her statement, Spence-Jones expressed no interest in a run.

“I love our city and I will continue to serve my community when needed or asked,” she wrote. “However, my family is my focus and we have decided that public office is not in our future plans at this moment.”