Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Voters were misled on SkyRise funding

Rendering of the SkyRise tower.
Rendering of the SkyRise tower. ARQUITECTONICA

If there was one unhappy lesson we should have learned from the Miami Marlins stadium deal it should have been that people who want public funding for their expensive private projects will say just about anything to get it.

Remember the Marlins president donning the cowboy hat in San Antonio to trick us into believing he was serious about taking away the team if a new stadium wasn’t built — and was later videotaped boasting about his charlatan ways?

Well now, duh, surprise, surprise: After Miami voters overwhelmingly approved a $400 million private, for-profit observation tower on a spit of city land, the 1,000-foot tall spectacle called SkyRise Miami has begun to reveal itself as another ignominy.

The developer and supporters, including politicians, are boasting of the structure as “iconic” even before it’s built. Some of the financing depends on getting wealthy foreigners to invest millions in exchange for green cards — not unpredented, but is it desirable?

And despite assurances from Miami’s mayor to the contrary, the project calls for public money for infrastructure.

In the campaign to win voter approval, SkyRise supporters used the slogan “No Cost to the City,” but what wasn’t publicly disclosed — allegedly not even to the mayor of Miami — was that the developer was already seeking $15 million from county taxpayers.

Every salesman needs a sucker who believes him, and Miami developer Jeff Berkowitz found the perfect candidate in Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who eagerly campaigned for the project, assuring everyone who would listen, including The Herald’s Editorial Board, that taxpayer funds would not be used on the project.

SkyRise, in fact, had asked for the county subsidy back in February, but the county’s administration conveniently held off putting the request in the public approval pipeline until after the August city referendum.

And the request for public funds was no secret to City of Miami managers.

An exchange of letters between the city manager’s office and SkyRise show that the developer did inform the city back in April that it had applied for $10 million to $20 million worth of county and state government grants for work on public infrastructure — extension of baywalks, parking, roads — as part of the project’s financing plan.

Now Regalado — in another expeditious move of political convenience — says he was “uninformed” and wasn’t aware that Berkowitz was seeking a county subsidy from the coffers of beleaguered Miami-Dade County taxpayers — and who, except for City of Miami residents, didn’t get to vote on the project.

Miami voters were lied to, but Regalado insists no one misled anyone.

He’s surprised now, but people paying attention — and reading between the lines, Cold War Kremlin-style — could have seen the request for public dollars coming.

From a Miami Herald, November 2013 story on the unveiling of the observation tower, designed to look like a hairpin:

“It’s a proven concept,” said Berkowitz, who is not seeking any public funding. “These things are people magnets. I didn’t undertake this without a great deal of research. I’m confident it will be profitable. If I build it they will come.”

That story quotes Berkowitz’s personal investment at $50 million.

Then this from a Herald June 2014 story on Miami city commissioners needing to agree to put the deal, along with extending Bayside’s lease to 99 years, up for a referendum:

“To pave the way for the tower, Berkowitz, Miami officials and Bayside’s operators have reached a complex deal — virtually all of it to be privately financed — that would result in an extensive facelift for the aging retail and entertainment complex while plowing tens of millions of dollars into the cash-strapped city’s coffers.”

Notice the “virtually” that enters the picture, since Berkowitz was seeking state funds then — and his private investment is now down to $30 million.

Guess who is ready to give Berkowitz money — $9 million is the figure bandied about now — to help him build a very questionable project on almost two acres of publicly owned waterfront land behind Bayside Marketplace?

His good friend Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez — the same guy who was ready to scrap libraries, cut firefighters, lay off police, etc. etc., because the county is just so strapped for dollars.

The word deception comes to mind.

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