Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been in discussions with Donald Trump for more than a year about the celebrity developer taking over the county’s waterfront golf course in Crandon Park, but pledged Wednesday not to influence his administration’s handling of the proposed deal.
Gimenez cited his son’s lobbying work in Doral for Trump, saying a recusal was necessary to remove any question about financial conflict for the golf-course mogul — who also recently became a top contributor to the mayor’s reelection effort. The recusal announcement was made in a memo to county commissioners, saying Gimenez had just learned that Miami-Dade received an unsolicited Crandon proposal from Trump. The document did not mention Gimenez’s active role in the county’s talks with Trump, which aides detailed after inquiries from the Miami Herald.
Trump and Gimenez first discussed what the billionaire television star might do with Crandon when the two played the course in late 2013, a County Hall spokesman said. In January 2014, Gimenez met with top aides and Trump’s representative about putting a deal together, and Trump later sent the rough draft of a proposal directly to the mayor in March. Gimenez wrote back to Trump saying the developer’s aim to “make Crandon Park on par with Pebble Beach is intriguing.”
“I look forward to further discussions regarding Crandon Golf Course and appreciate your interest in improving the game of golf in our community,” Gimenez wrote to Trump, who bought the Doral Golf Resort in 2012.
The Gimenez administration kept quiet about the Trump proposal submitted last summer to spend $10 million to improve the waterfront course in exchange for a management contract. The July 2 proposal contemplates Trump managing the course for 99 years. A business forecast filed with the county shows Trump flipping the course’s annual loss of about $340,000 to a profit of $2 million within five years. The Parks department released the proposal Wednesday, and a public hearing on the plan is expected this spring.
Trump’s offer is to maintain Crandon’s status as a prized public course, but with new rates, facilities and concession offerings that would improve Crandon’s finances and establish it as a world-class venue. Crandon is already regarded as one of the top South Florida courses, landing at No. 3 on the South Florida Business Journal’s 2014 golf rankings (the other Top 5 slots are held by Trump-run courses). Trump wrote Gimenez in March to say Miami-Dade could do better with Crandon.
“I have set my sights on a new project which has tremendous potential but is currently laying fallow and is not properly representative of what it could and should be,” Trump wrote in the March 5 letter released by Gimenez’s office. “That is Crandon Park Golf Club. I WOULD LIKE TO MAKE IT GREAT!”
The proposal calls for Trump to retain 90 percent of the course’s operating profits, which are estimated at $2.3 million in 2020, five years after the renovation concludes in 2016. It would debut with a $1.2 million operating profit, rather than the $337,000 loss listed for 2013 in the Trump documents. With Trump pledging a renovated clubhouse, his forecasts show a huge increase in food-and-beverage revenue: from $32,000 in 2013, to nearly $900,000 in 2020.
The forecast also shows a drop in wages paid for running the county-managed course, with the 2013 payroll of $1.5 million declining 14 percent when the new operation opens under Trump’s management. But add in the extra $375,000 in wages and benefits Trump plans to spend on the food-and-beverage offerings, and the entire payroll expense grows by about 18 percent.
Proposal documents also pledged to maintain current discounts for Miami-Dade residents for three years. Ed Russo, Trump’s represenatitive in the county talks, said the proposal also includes a $100,000 minimum guaranteed payment to Miami-Dade each year. “We stipulated we are going to make the county money,” Russo said.
With Crandon already a popular course, critics questioned why Gimenez was entertaining Trump’s plan.
“It makes no sense whatsoever,” said Xavier Suarez, the Miami-Dade commissioner whose district includes Key Biscayne and is considering a mayoral run in 2016 against Gimenez. “It’s a showcase course. Everybody is happy. The fees are reasonable. Why are we even contemplating this?”
Trump’s Crandon ambitions, and the mayor’s role in potentially realizing them, emerged on the heels of a muscular fundraising debut by Gimenez’s 2016 reelection campaign. On Tuesday, a committee set up to back Gimenez, Miami-Dade Residents First, announced it had raised $502,000 in less than four weeks.
Ralph Garcia-Toledo, Gimenez’s finance chair, said Gimenez made some fundraising calls himself and that donors were asked not to give more than $15,000. Trump gave that capped amount.
In removing himself from the Trump talks, Gimenez told commissioners a top aide, Michael Spring, would be the senior official in charge of decision making. The mayor’s spokesman, Michael Hernández, said a recusal wasn’t legally required because Gimenez’s son, Carlos J. Gimenez, is not lobbying for Trump on county matters.
Mayor Gimenez and Trump talked about Crandon’s future during a round of golf on the course played Oct. 6, 2013, at the mayor’s invitation, Hernández said. He said Trump complained about the course and Gimenez asked what he could do to make it better.
About four months later, on Jan. 28, 2014, Gimenez, his then chief of staff, Lisa Martinez, and parks director Jack Kardys met with Russo, about a potential Crandon deal, according to Hernández. Gimenez told Kardys to work with the Trump organization on a plan, and Trump sent his proposal letter about five weeks after that.
The younger Gimenez said in an interview he took Trump on as a client in 2013. While he said he strictly avoids county business, the younger Gimenez said he did advise Russo on how he might craft a proposal for Crandon. “My role was extremely limited. Only in providing Mr. Russo guidance on legal and procedural issues,” he said. “I had absolutely zero interaction with anyone at the county in this matter.”
He said he did talk to his father about Trump’s interest in submitting a proposal. His father was “just asking to see what the status is,” the younger Gimenez said. “I didn’t have a lot of information because I wasn’t involved. My response was Ed was working on it.”
He added that his father recused himself “verbally” at the Jan. 28 meeting, an assertion that Hernández later affirmed. Mayor Gimenez did not respond to an interview request with his office. Asked why the mayor continued to correspond with Trump after a recusal, Hernández responded: “Correspondence is for informational purposes. The mayor was informing Mr. Trump of the process.”