Can Miami-Dade lure a mega-mall? County too poor to ask
By Michael Lewis
Over a year ago Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Dennis Moss pushed through a resolution asking Mayor Carlos Alvarez for a report within six months on developing an economy-changing mega shopping district here.
The report was due last year.
Today, for the first time, commissioners are to discuss a memo from County Manager George Burgess with the answer: the county can't meet the request because it would cost $60,000 to $70,000 to do.
This is a county that spends $8 billion each year. This is potentially a game-changing project whose long-term impact could also be billions. But too bad — we're $70,000 short of the jackpot.
It's a good thing Mr. Burgess was able to find $3 billion for a baseball stadium because he thought it too was a game-changer. Guess we'll have to live with that as our economic engine for the next four decades.
"Such a shopping district could create jobs and business opportunities and could increase tax revenues in Miami-Dade County," the commission's June 2009 resolution says, vastly downplaying the impact.
The resolution sees a mega-mall as a tourist attraction and a convenience to residents. And it comes right out and says it wants something "similar to Sawgrass Mills in Broward County."
To put that in perspective, Sawgrass is almost 2.6 million square feet — almost twice the size of either Dolphin Mall or Dadeland Mall, and has over 350 stores, 25% more than Aventura Mall. It's not big, it's jumbo.
That's the kind of development commissioners wanted to spur. Instead, they were spurned. For whatever real reason, Mr. Burgess said he's $70,000 short of encouraging that kind of regional development.
Oh, he did offer a sort of report, though not as good as a college term paper, which concludes that the county can't really answer and needs to hire a consultant.
The report even lists what the county would ask a consultant to do that it can't, like talk to some knowledgeable people.
In its current budget crunch with fewer than 30,000 employees, you can understand why the county can't find anyone to take on such a tough task as getting a group of people together to talk.
But what last year's resolution asked for wasn't exactly rocket science.
It wanted ideas on where a mega shopping district could fit, what changes in land use rules would be needed to make it happen and what county incentives could be used to lure a developer, "including incentives that have been used in other mega shopping districts such as Sawgrass Mills."
Despite the fact that government incentives to developers are easily-obtained public records, the report that commissioners will see today doesn't even hint at an answer to that query, which is the key to landing any mega-mall development that isn't already in the pipeline.
The real question in the resolution was: What can we do to get a huge shopping complex now that we've spent $3 billion for a stadium? After waiting a year, commissioners got no answer.
What the report did say is that the Department of Planning and Zoning spotted five areas where such a complex might go: West of Miami International Airport to the Turnpike between Northwest 36th Street and State Road 836; around Opa-locka Airport; around Tamiami Airport; in Northwest Hialeah annexation area; and surrounding "Cutler Ridge Shopping Mall," which, someone should tell the county, has been Southland Mall since 2003.
If those generalities aren't specific enough, let a developer take over — which is what the resolution intends once the county has some incentives to work with.
If the stadium process had been this slipshod, the Marlins would soon be playing in some unsuitable place like downtown Miami instead of the ideal location government chose far from public transportation.
The sad part is that Commissioner Moss asked logical economic development questions. His directive noted that in the county "there is no specific zoning category or classification for mega shopping malls. This would entail the enactment of a zoning ordinance."
Unfortunately, the county did not address that need either. Perhaps consultants must also outline zoning rules.
But the "scope of services" memo for consultants attached to Mr. Burgess's response doesn't even deal with that. He wants a study of — no kidding — "the future of retail/entertainment," with a roundtable of thinkers to tell us.
Mr. Moss didn't request that. He well knows that a developer will have in mind a specific concept that county planners aren't going to shape.
Today's commission discussion could take many directions. Mr. Moss, a gentleman, is not given to ridiculing administrators.
But after waiting twice as long as requested for a non-report that says go hire a consultant and doesn't address the key questions, even Mr. Moss might ask for more when billions in investment and impact are on the table.
Please, Mr. Moss, ask.