FTAA Watson Island plan confounds holder of land rights
By Susan Stabley
On the first day of this month, Gov. Jeb Bush, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and leaders of a team promoting the city as the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas presented plans to place the trade secretariat on Watson Island or Dinner Key in Coconut Grove.
The Watson Island site, city-owned waterfront property off MacArthur Causeway, earlier had been slated to become home of the $11.7 million Watson Island Aviation and Visitors Center.
The project, in the works since 1997, would have combined Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau headquarters and a press center with seaplane and helicopter bases as well as Customs and security offices. But the deal fell apart after the bureau pulled out.
Eleven days after state and local officials unveiled designs and possible locations for the trade headquarters, the remaining partners in the aviation-center project met to look over four alternative options for the property - including ways to place helicopter landing pads and spaces for seaplanes on the site.
None of the options mentioned a possible trade headquarters.
So what are the official plans for the city-owned site - an aviation center or headquarters for the Free Trade Area of the Americas?
Both, said Otto Boudet-Murias, senior economic-development adviser for Mayor Diaz. "The aviation component probably will be incorporated into the FTAA headquarters," he said Friday. "In the same way as the aviation-visitors center, it can be integrated into the facility."
Mr. Boudet-Murias said the FTAA building could replace what was to have been the home of the visitors bureau.
That echoed comments made by city Commissioner Johnny Winton the day after the city unveiled its plan March 1 to pitch the property for the FTAA secretariat. Mr. Winton's district includes the property.
But the owner of the island's seaplane operations said he was never told about the plans for the FTAA headquarters on land he leases from the city.
Chalk's Ocean Airways, formerly Chalk's Airlines, is required to build a structure with a minimum $1 million commitment if other plans fall through, according to Chalk's owner Jim Confalone, who doesn't look forward to changing his plans again.
"It's like reinventing the wheel," Mr. Confalone said. "We were there with minute details with where computers would go on counters.... Am I going to have to go through that again?"
When Mr. Confalone took over the company in August 1999, a suit between Chalk's and the city was in a standstill. Chalk's had sued in 1988 when the city tried to evict all tenants from Watson Island. But Chalk's and the city settled the dispute shortly after Mr. Confalone took over ownership of the company.
Chalk's is the oldest airline in the world, in operation since 1919 and outlasting larger companies such as Eastern Airlines and Pan American Airways. It has been based on Watson Island since its beginnings and never paid a penny in rent before the 1999 settlement.
Because Chalk's hadn't paid rent, Mr. Confalone was able to win the settlement with the city, which called for a 30-year lease of the site with an option for 20 years more. His company also owns rights to provide food service if an aviation center is built.
The Florida Department of Transportation has provided more than $4 million for construction of an aviation center, provided helicopter pads are built. Linden Airport Services Corp. of New Jersey was awarded the bid for helicopter operations and has committed $350,000.
But the city's pitch to leaders of the 34 nations participating in FTAA negotiations - every country in North, South and Central America and the Caribbean except Cuba - doesn't mention seaplanes or helicopters. The proposed $281 million Island Gardens development with its two hotels, mega-yacht marina, shops and restaurants does get prominent play, as do Parrot Jungle Island and the Miami Children's Museum, both new fixtures on the tiny manmade isle connecting mainland Miami to Miami Beach.
Jorge Arrizurieta, executive director and chief operating office of Florida FTAA Inc., the group leading the effort to land the headquarters, indicated that he was unaware until recently that there are claims to the site.
Mr. Arrizurieta said Friday that he spoke with Mr. Confalone earlier in the day and told him that Florida FTAA is confident that the land is available for the secretariat.
Designs for the bureau headquarters and the secretariat were drawn by Miami architectural firm Spillis Candela DMJM. Conceptual drawings of alternative plans for the site shown to Mr. Confalone and others March 12 bear the date March 11 and were drafted by Kimley-Horn and Associates.
Mr. Confalone said the city told him the drawings cost $50,000 and were not put out for bid.
"Talk about something embarrassing to the President of the United States' brother!" Mr. Confalone said of conflicting plans for the location. "Either they didn't know, or something isn't right."