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Homestead's sneaky deal raises hackles

December 5, 1995

A month before the final vote, Metro commissioners are catching heavy flak for their outlandish giveaway of Homestead Air Force Base.

Hundreds of South Dade residents appeared at a public hearing last Wednesday to protest the county's furtive move to lease 1,800 acres to a group called the Homestead Air Force Base Developers, Inc.

HABDI wants to turn the hurricane-battered base into a commercial airport with shopping, offices, apartments and an industrial park.

It's an ambitious plan, especially coming from local home builders who've never before developed an airport.

But these aren't just any builders. HABDI's principals are also big shots with the potent Latin Builders Association, whose members donate large sums to Metro Commission candidates.

HABDI's top man is Carlos Herrera, president of the LBA. Other partners in the Homestead project include two former LBA directors and a vice president.

Their 45-year lease agreement was quietly being maneuvered through the commission when details began leaking. No sooner did neighbors begin raising objections than HABDI started braying about discrimination.

That's what happened at Wednesday's hearing, too. HABDI's Camilio Jaime and others staged a walkout, charging that opposition to the airport is being led by anti-Hispanic racists.

Which must come as a surprise to project critics such as Metro Commissioner Maurice Ferre and former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, who happen to be Hispanic.

HABDI isn't fooling anyone. Its accusations are a smoke screen contrived to obscure a land deal that stinks.

It began when the U.S. government decided to close most of Homestead Air Force Base and turn it over to Dade County.

Oddly, the county never advertised that the base property was available to private interests. There was no public meeting, no competitive bidding.

Yet, nine days after receiving HABDI's written proposala proposal kept secret, at HABDI's requestMetro aviation officials offered the group a lease.

Acting against staff recommendations, county commissioners in July 1994 voted to give HABDI first dibs on the air base. Another developer made a pitch, but was rejected.

True to form, Dade officials endorsed the HABDI lease without researching the feasibility of putting a big air park in South Dade. Some question whether it can compete with a newly expanded Miami International Airport.

Another question is the risk to taxpayers, if the project flops. The agreement calls for the HABDI partners to invest a minimum of $16 million the first seven years. But most of the development moneyan estimated $500 millionwould come from other investors, still unnamed.

The county would contribute $10 million worth of roads and improvements. Meanwhile HABDI would pay no rent on undeveloped property.

County Manager Armando Vidal says he's confident the Homestead deal is solid, and the public's interest will be protected. Commissioners will take a final vote Jan. 11.

Many who live near the baseAnglos, blacks and Hispanics alikeare justifiably suspicious and upset. It's not that they don't want the place developed; they just want to make sure it's done fairly, and with the best chance of success.

They don't want a sneaky political deal shoved down their throats, which is what's happening.

Time will tell if HABDI can make good on its grandiose promises for the old air base. What's disgraceful is that nobody else is getting a chance to bid, so people in South Dade will never know if something better could have been done.

From pathetic to revolting, our leaders run gamut May 29, 1994 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Greenpalm: A true-life tale of bugs and rats September 22, 1996