Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Opa-locka ignored unpaid bills, falling revenues and the seller’s history

Town Center One, the new building purchased by Opa-locka this past year. It is at 780 Fisherman St.
Town Center One, the new building purchased by Opa-locka this past year. It is at 780 Fisherman St.

Not that I believe in numerology, but an $8 million coincidence should have been enough to unnerve Opa-locka’s mayor and commissioners before they blundered into that real estate deal.

But even as they contemplated $8 million in unpaid bills, with no prospects of finding money to pay them off, the city’s elected leaders approved the $8 million purchase for Town Center One. They shrugged off the weird coincidence and ignored the city’s budget deficits, declining revenues, unpaid employees, misappropriated funds and possible violations of federal securities law. They just went ahead and bought the joint.

Obviously, the folks running Opa-locka aren’t economists.

But something else should have warned them off the purchase of the four-story building in downtown Opa-locka: The seller’s name.

Dennis Stackhouse, 73, has an unhappy history of cobbling together questionable transactions with local governments. You don’t need an economics degree to be wary of a Stackhouse deal.

Perhaps, before buying Town Center One, Mayor Myra Taylor and the city commissioners should have taken a tour of the Poinciana Biopharmaceutical Park that Stackhouse had promised to build in Liberty City. He finagled millions in federal and local grants a decade ago to create a pharma research and office complex that would bring 3,500 new jobs to the community. Stackhouse wowed government officials with his list of prestigious tenants ready to move in, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Australia-based Brain Resource Center.

Unhappily, when the Miami Herald investigated, his actual tenant list featured mostly imaginary outfits like Carrie Meek Biopharmaceutical Institute, a made-up entity named for the former congresswoman to whom he had paid $40,000, provided a Cadillac Escalade SUV and given office space, all to give his illusionary project political cover.

Stackhouse churned through government loans and grants, but the bio-park and those nice jobs never materialized. All Liberty City got for those millions was an empty lot. In 2009, he was charged with fraud and grand theft. (Amazingly, the case is still pending in Miami-Dade court, which probably suits local politicians who aren’t anxious to remind voters how they were sucked into the Stackhouse con.) He also pleaded guilty to greasing his way into the local political establishment by making illegal campaign contributions. That got him seven months probation. Too bad prosecutors didn’t tack on a condition requiring Stackhouse to refrain from luring elected officials into any more rotten deals.

But Opa-locka was undeterred by Stackhouse’s unsavory history. The city sold bonds to partially finance the purchase of his office building, forgetting to disclose to bond buyers about those budget deficits. Or how the city has been robbing reserves just to make payroll.

Plus, the city was counting on rent from other tenants at One Town Center to help pay off the bonds, but as my colleagues Michael Sallah and Jay Weaver reported, two major tenants were already $900,000 behind in their rent when the city closed the deal.

Of course, Opa-locka could always rent space to the Carrie Meek Biopharmaceutical Institute.

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