Commissioners split on Opa-locka development
By Wayne Tompkins
A proposal for Miami-Dade County to begin negotiations with the Carrie Meek Foundation for a development lease at Opa-locka Executive Airport failed to pass a divided Miami-Dade Airport and Tourism Committee last week.
County Commissioner Barbara Jordan asked that the county ask the not-for-profit foundation to take over long-stalled development efforts on 121 acres of government land next to the airport.
However, commissioners Carlos Gimenez and Rebeca Sosa questioned why the county effectively was appointing a developer instead of opening the process to others. "I prefer a competitive process," Ms. Sosa said.
With two members absent, the committee deadlocked 2-2. A measure fails on a tie vote.
The county commission in March stripped the Opa-locka Community Development Corp. of control of the land after the company failed for two decades to develop the site.
"I'd like to see in my lifetime some development take place on the property," Ms. Jordan said.
The Carrie Meek Foundation, headed by the former U.S. representative, is sponsoring a $200 million airport-development proposal backed by Ms. Jordan. Officials of the industrial and retail project envision 4,000 jobs for the economically distressed area around Northwest 27th Avenue.
While it is not uncommon for leases to be assigned without a competitive bid process, Mr. Gimenez said he is uncomfortable with such policies.
"I can't support directing (the county) to aim it at one particular entity or another — that's my concern," Mr. Gimenez said. "This particular asset has become more valuable. … I think you're going to have more than one entity trying to develop it."
Ms. Jordan said the Meek Foundation has "demonstrated that it has the ability" to forge a constructive relationship with the airport.
Ms. Jordan said more than a dozen private entities have approached the Opa-locka development agency over the years about the land but none could strike a deal. Among failed proposals: a Dunkin' Donuts distribution center, facilities for an airline-supply firm and a Sysco Food wholesale operation.
Miguel Southwell, assistant director of business development for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, said future leaseholders at the site likely will have poison-pill incentives to develop the property — they would have to pay rent after a certain time even if there is no development.
Mr. Southwell said the 40-year lease the community-development agency was given may have hampered development efforts because a site the size of the Opa-locka parcel normally requires an investment of at least $150 million and lease terms of 55 years or more to secure financing.
Anthony Williams, the Meek foundation's executive director, said he felt committee members made it clear they were not opposed to the project.
"It was largely a process question," Mr. Williams said of the resolution's failure. "The commission would rather the airport come to them than to be told to go out and find somebody. But all roads lead to the same place ultimately."
Mr. Gimenez said that whether the foundation or another entity takes over the project, "we can't let this asset be held hostage. We're going to have performance, there are going to be timetables, and if they don't do it, boom, they're gone."
Although he joined Commissioner Jose Diaz in supporting the ordinance, Commissioner Dorrin Rolle said he is concerned that the troubles of the Opa-locka site not continue. "I'm trying to avoid another non-profit getting into the same situation that the Opa-locka CDC did," Mr. Rolle said. "Any new lease should be an improvement over the old one."
In backing the Meek foundation's bid, Ms. Jordan said she would prefer a black-led organization to develop the site to maintain focus on the project's key mission — to benefit the predominantly black Opa-locka community.
Ms. Sosa said the county must be selective. Otherwise, a repeat of past failures could be ahead, she said. "If we didn't learn from the mistakes of the past, then we are in a very bad position — keeping this area away from development and the benefit that could have meant over 20 years. … We should put on a big hat and cover the face."