The lessons of Airport City have little to do with Airport City
Written by Michael Lewis on February 26, 2014
Talks can go on to build Airport City on 7½ acres at Miami International Airport instead of 33½ as planned. But it’ll be hard to find anyone who feels good about the process.
As commissioners last week in hours of sometimes heated debate blocked a move to restudy the deal after six years of work, they highlighted much that’s wrong at the county.
In a nutshell, the county now continues talks with Odebrecht USA, local arm of a Brazilian construction giant, to build what remains of a commercial development planned at the airport’s front door.
The scope was minimized because Aviation Director Emilio Gonzalez says the airport now needs most of the land that predecessor Jose Abreu aimed to develop so the airport could pay hundreds of millions of annual debt incurred in a revamp.
Airport City long has been controversial, but for the wrong reason.
It was never, until now, a concern that the airport might need to expand or use the land for other purposes.
It was never, until now, a concern that offering the project to others might bring the county a better deal,
It was never, until now, a concern that tough negotiating with Odebrecht could yield a better deal.
Any of those concerns might be valid.
But instead, the sticking point from the get-go has been that Odebrecht’s parent does work in Cuba and the local company – which has handled many major projects here already – therefore isn’t fit in the minds of some for a plum airport deal.
So many commissioners went out of their way to say it wasn’t about the company at all that they proved the point.
Most commissioners came to vote on whether to look at new partners with positions already firm and discussion points written by interests who weren’t at the table.
Debate civilly followed scripts that skirted the Cuba issue until Javier Souto unveiled the elephant in the room, saying that letting Odebrecht do the job would be offensive to Cuban Americans, the people he said built the community.
The meeting quickly unraveled, as Dennis Moss said blacks were here first and built the community.
It’s not helpful to detail either their comments or the clumsy efforts by others to calm roiled waters. Unless you’re a masochist, you don’t want to hear it. We didn’t either.
That ethnic undercurrent wasn’t born with this issue. It underlies much of what commissioners do – to the detriment of this county.
What this battle showed is:
• Ethnic politics isn’t deeply buried and harms the community.
• The important issues – best use of land and best deal for the taxpayers – never were seriously raised until they became stalking horses for the debate over dealings with Cuba.
• Any major county project, as Commissioner Juan Zapata pointed out in an earlier debate, is far harder and slower to achieve than it should be.
• No good deed at the county goes unpunished after you’re gone. Persons no longer involved become fall guys for why it’s now no good at all.
• Facts never get in the way, as commissioners repeatedly argued that Airport City talks begun in 2008 had gone on eight years. Do the math.
• The commission undervalues long-term vision and planning. What is valued is today’s political advantage.
• Too much debate plays to the crowd. Rarely are commissioners frank about real concerns. They’re playing to meeting telecasts.
• It’s virtually impossible to strike the best deals in public-private partnerships or with vendors because the focus is rarely on the best deal for taxpayers and residents.
• The obvious question is often unasked. As commissioners debated a project undertaken primarily to repay a massive debt burden, neither the size of that burden nor the impact of Airport City was ever mentioned. Yet that’s the only reason a deal was ever considered.
It’s hard to choose the right course for Airport City. Both sides cited valid points, one being sticking to the partner who brought you to the dance and the other being finding the best partner for the community. That’s a fair debate.
But while what’s right to do for Airport City is murky, what’s right to do to improve commission work is clear:
• Forget ethnicity and focus on community. We all have the same ancestors: Adam and Eve.
• Stick to what’s really important, not what plays best on television
• Figure out why the commission can’t accomplish much of note. It’s not rocket science.
• Keep to the facts, and ignore who caused problems years ago. Exaggeration and finger-pointing don’t advance things.
• Reward vision. We incurred a $3 billion baseball stadium debt to create immediate jobs and never considered how we’d repay it. We’re about to spent $12 billion for water and sewer work because we skipped upgrades for decades.
• Let government’s executives deal with business. Why do commissioners meet with company after company that seek contracts and then tailor contracts to suit a vendor’s aims rather than those of taxpayers?
• Consider every major project as part of the whole rather than in isolation. The future of Airport City might well have been determined by how much revenue the county could get and how much debt it owes. Neither was even mentioned last week.
Of course, it’s far simpler to suggest logical steps than to achieve them. Success in that is in the hands of 13 commissioners.
But you could help them by mentioning that you favor more effective commission action. It’s unfair to commissioners not to give them candid feedback straight from the shoulder.
Perhaps they’ll listen – especially if you’re a campaign donor.