A panel recommends taking control of the airport away from county officials, but that's not likely.
By David Villano
A year ago, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas appointed a panel to study reform measures for the scandal-plagued Miami International Airport. As it turns out, he may have gotten more than he bargained for. In March, the panel proposed transferring the airport's purse strings from the County Commission to an independent authority. Only then will billions of dollars in public spending be insulated from political meddling, panel members concluded.
Yet despite broad public support for the panel's recommendation, neither Penelas nor the 13-member commission is eager to relinquish control. In what critics call an effort to emasculate the panel's plan, the commission is now considering four counterproposals, all put forth by county leaders and all of which stop short of removing the mayor and commission from airport affairs.
Penelas backs the independent authority concept, but only if he and the commission hold the power to decide who sits on the authority. The panel envisioned an authority whose members would be appointed by the governor, far from the cauldron of Miami-Dade politics. Another compromise plan calls for creating an authority that would merely advise the commission without usurping its power to award contracts.
While the commission remains divided on which plan to support, virtually everyone agrees reform is needed -- even the airlines themselves, which historically have stayed out of the county's politics. In the past year, Miami International Airport has been rocked by allegations of poor planning, influence peddling, public corruption and misuse of funds. And observers say it may only get worse. The county expects to spend at least $5.4 billion over the next seven years on upgrades and expansions at the airport. Adding fuel to the fire was a Consumer Reports survey released in September that ranked the county-owned and operated airport among the worst in the nation, while giving high marks to nearby Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
As Penelas and the commission debate which plan, if any, to submit to voters, who must approve any change, many in the business community are growing restless. Adolfo Henriques, president of Union Planters Bank of Florida and a member of the panel, says he remains a bit miffed that the commission rejected the idea of a truly independent authority from the moment it was first proposed. "I don't think it was ever given any serious consideration and certainly not the consideration it was due," he says.
Nevertheless, Henriques believes a politically viable plan eventually will emerge. "I've always been the eternal optimist, but I still expect that (Penelas and the commission) will follow the will of their constituency and make these decisions they are being asked to make."
In the News
Boca Raton -- Pace Micro Technology, a producer of hardware for the pay-television industry, has leased 26,000 square feet of office space at Florida Atlantic University's Research and Development Park to expand Latin American operations. By late next year, the company expects total employment at the Boca Raton facility to reach 100, up from just four in mid-2000. At least 70 of the new positions will be in engineering, marketing and other professional fields.
Clewiston -- With sugar prices at a 25-year low, U.S. Sugar Corp. has announced it will cut 217 full-time positions and 110 seasonal jobs, or just under 10% of its total workforce. The cuts will allow the privately held company to complete a reorganization that will include a separation of its sugar and citrus division. U.S. Sugar is the nation's largest sugar producer, with about 200,000 acres in production in Palm Beach, Glades and Hendry counties.
Fort Lauderdale -- In what is being hailed as the biggest transaction ever for a Broward office building, AutoNation (NYSE-AN) has sold its signature AutoNation Tower for $53.5 million to Genesis Capital Advisors. AutoNation, which occupies roughly half of the building, will remain a tenant under a 10-year lease agreement with the Dallas-based buyers.
Plans to attract more upscale visitors to Fort Lauderdale's beaches received a boost in September when the St. Regis Hotels of New York announced it will operate a 235-room, 23-story condominium hotel near the beach. Construction on the $160-million project should begin this year, with opening set for late 2002.
Miami -- Hoping to fill surging demand for luxury hotel accommodations in Miami-Dade, the JW Marriott Hotel Miami has opened on downtown Miami's Brickell Avenue. The 300-room, 21-floor building is the first of at least six high-end hotels scheduled for completion in the county over the next two years. Also under way: three Ritz-Carltons (one each in Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne and Miami Beach), a Four Seasons and a Mandarin Oriental. JW Marriott is the Marriott chain's luxury nameplate, with only 10 worldwide.
Miami Lakes -- Miami Lakes will become Miami-Dade's newest city after residents voted overwhelming in September to incorporate. County officials, concerned by the loss of property tax revenues from the affluent enclave, opposed the measure but gave in to citizen demands after securing a pledge of $1.45 million a year from the new city to offset losses.
South Florida -- Florida Department of Agriculture officials say that by year's end at least 80% of the citrus trees in Miami-Dade and more than 60% in Broward will be removed in an effort to halt the spread of citrus canker. As of mid-September, more than 375,000 trees had been cut down, at a rate of about 4,500 a day, in Miami-Dade and Broward alone. It is the second time in five years that the highly infectious disease has threatened the $8.5-billion citrus industry.
Both Miami-Dade and Broward have selected new advertising agencies to promote opportunities for business expansions and relocations. The Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's economic development commission, has selected Miami's Turkel Schwartz & Partners to handle the county's three-year, $6-million advertising campaign. The Broward Alliance has announced that Group Direct Advertising will oversee its one-year, $1-million campaign.
Hotel occupancy in south Florida continued to climb to record rates last summer, leading some officials to predict an end to the "off-season" for tourism. In Miami-Dade, hotel occupancy in June jumped five percentage points to 74% -- the sixth-highest figure nationwide. In Broward, the rate reached 67%, up 6.7 points from a year earlier. The Florida Keys also reported strong gains in June, with resort tax collections climbing 7.4 points.
High-Tech: All-in-One Tech Center
The quest for the Holy Grail of the 21st-century economy -- clean high-paying tech jobs -- has led Indian River Community College to launch an all-in-one technology development center it hopes will put Fort Pierce on the map as a technology hot spot.
IRCC's Technology Development and Training Center is hailed as a first-of-its-kind combination of high-tech business incubator, business training center and technology education facility. Seven companies are already housed in the incubator, which has room for seven more. The business-training center provides customized training for companies looking to enhance their employees' technology skills. The education arm provides degree, certificate and specialized programs to community college students looking to cash in on the 1 million computer-oriented jobs experts forecast will be vacant in the U.S. in 2003.
The $2-million center opened in September amid high hopes that the effort will attract high-tech companies to the Treasure Coast. "Because of this center, we are going to become one of the most competitive areas in the state in attracting businesses," says Ted Astolfi, executive director of the Martin County Business Development Board.