TEAMWORK: In line with Miami-Dade Commission Chair Dennis Moss's vision for a federal stimulus wish list, commissioners agreed unanimously and without discussion last week to direct Mayor Carlos Alvarez "to coordinate efforts with the 35 municipalities within Miami-Dade County and encourage municipalities to join with the county and create a unified, comprehensive public infrastructure proposal to submit to the federal government for the anticipated federal economic stimulus package." Mr. Alvarez has already sent lawmakers a letter outlining his priorities, including Metrorail extensions and a tunnel to the Port of Miami. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has also already sent a list along.
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BOND AWAY: With not a word of discussion, Miami-Dade commissioners last week authorized issuing up to $600 million in aviation revenue bonds to fund capital improvements at airport properties countywide. Because of shaky markets, officials could sell the bonds in multiple tranches. They're projecting a conservative "true interest cost" of 8% "as a precautionary measure," documents say, but the hope is market conditions will improve by the time the bonds are all priced.
CIRCLE OF SILENCE: What if Miami had a National Historic Landmark and no one knew about it? That's what occurred with the ancient Miami Circle, which the US Department of Interior declared a National Historic Landmark in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. The site's local management agency, the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, never got formal notice from the federal government. But after it did learn of the designation it decided to stay mum until it could privately notify museum members and supporters. But after more than a week of keeping the news about the Tequesta Indian site to themselves, museum officials got a press inquiry Monday and decided to share the development with the public. "In hindsight we probably should have gotten this information out sooner," said Victoria Cervantes, the museum's external affairs manager, conceding that the public's more than $25 million investment in the circle gives it a big stake in its future.
STADIUM VOTE TIE?: District 5 Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, the only female Miami commissioner, is expected to give birth in early February. She could be absent when the five-member city commission votes on the Marlins stadium construction agreements, tentatively on Feb. 13. The commission is expected to vote on the five stadium agreements in the morning and the Miami-Dade County Commission in the afternoon.
BABY BREAK: Commissioner Spence-Jones said she plans to take maternity leave after her delivery but will keep an eye on her district. "I will keep in constant contact with my staff, who are aware of the issues in my district and are my backbone throughout my service to the community." Her district encompasses neighborhoods such as Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City. Will she continue to attend twice-monthly commission meetings? "I will make that determination during the first month after the birth of my baby."
BOND PROJECTS BUDGET: Calling the voter-approved general obligation bond program "a success story for Miami-Dade County" in a report to commissioners last week, Robin Reiter-Faragalli, chair of the committee charged with overseeing the program, also raised a concern: potentially needing to delay bond-funded construction projects, such as libraries, "because there may not be enough money to operate some of those entities" once built. In a later interview, she clarified that "I think it's too early for that concern, but I felt it was important to voice. I think, five years from now, if revenue is down and if the county budget has to shrink and there is an issue with paying operating costs… then we would hope to know about them in enough time to make adjustments that are appropriate." Budget chief Jennifer Glazer-Moon said the administration last fiscal year adjusted the program with this in mind, continuing projects that would require operating once built if work had already started and holding off on those yet to begin. Now, "I don't think there would be any more projects pushed out," she said, though the county will keep an eye on it.
BE CAREFUL: In a December memo to department directors, County Manager George Burgess wrote "we must be extremely careful" moving forward with capital projects requiring new operational resources, but after review, "various infrastructure improvement and facility development projects, particularly for the Building Better Communities Bond Program, are moving forward as planned."
INTEREST INTEREST: And what of the interest earnings on the bonds? Commissioner Dorrin Rolle asked later in the meeting. He's long pressed the question. When the commission agreed in late 2007 to give $10 million in interest earnings to Florida International University for an outpatient and ambulatory health clinic — a project not among those approved in the 2004 bond referendum — he cast the lone no vote. He lambasted the administration for not coming up with a process on how to spend the interest funds, and last week — more than a year later — again asked what the plan is for the interest earnings. Ms. Glazer-Moon told commissioners to expect a proposed policy next month. Mr. Rolle was skeptical. "I keep hearing that, and it never comes."
METRORAIL EXTENSION: Odebrecht-Tower-Community Joint Venture is to build an extension of Metrorail linking the existing Earlington Heights Station to the intermodal center near Miami International Airport after Miami-Dade commissioners last week approved a $360.4 million contract. But they first raised concerns about the contractors that make up the joint venture, who have worked on various county projects, including the new airport terminals — Odebrecht Contractors — and the still unfinished South Miami-Dade Cultural Center — The Tower Group. Sally Heyman said she respects the companies but pointed out that "all of their projects have come in way over — and we're not printing our own money." Assistant County Manager Ysela Llort assured that proper protection is in place and "we're going to administer this contract with an eye for making sure we're right on top of it." She added a caveat later. "Can I absolutely sit here and tell you there are absolutely not going to be any modifications to this? I wouldn't do that. Sometime there are unforeseen circumstances."
TO BE DEFINED: Local small and mid-size businesses could get a boost from Miami-Dade County after commissioners last week approved without discussion an item directing the administration to develop a bailout loan plan for businesses "substantially affected by the current recession." Until the plan is completed — the administration has 30 days to provide a strategy to commissioners — it's unclear where the money would come from or how it would be distributed. Nowhere in the new legislation does it say commissioners would hand out the money or have discretion to choose the businesses, though local media reports have suggested that's how the program would work. In developing the program, the county would define the nature of the gap funding, set loan caps and identify how to ensure repayments to the county overtime or once the economy recovers. Commissioners must approve any proposed plans before the county begins a bailout program.
STEPPING UP: Steven W. Zelkowitz has been named managing partner of the GrayRobinson Miami office. He has been with the law firm three years and focuses on real estate, land use and zoning matters for both public and private clients. He received a law degree and a master's degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University. Before joining GrayRobinson, he practiced in New York City and Orlando.
OMNI, OVERTOWN STIMULUS: Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency board, made up of the five city commissioners, approved an economic stimulus program Monday to award $50,000 to businesses within the Overtown and Omni districts, totaling 10 grants each. Owners can ask for $5,000 to invest in equipment and fixtures, interior renovations, security systems, insurance, utilities, and marketing and advertising. Commissioner Tomás Regalado proposed the plan after hearing area businesses needed help in the troubled economy. Recipients must attend business training courses the agency provides.
GUESTS FROM AFRICA: Officials of Sierra Leone, including Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana, visited the Miami-Dade commission last week to say the African nation — once ravaged by civil war — is open for business. He cited similarities between Miami-Dade and his country, including a warm climate and "the finest beaches." Commissioner Dorrin Rolle said a Sister Cities application is in the works to link Miami-Dade with Freetown, Sierra Leone. Mr. Sam-Sumana also indicated a desire to one day open a consulate in Miami-Dade.
WORKING HARD: Florida International University Interim Vice Provost Joseph West has agreed to serve as vice provost of the Biscayne Bay Campus through August 2010. Since August 2008 he has handled two leadership positions simultaneously: dean of FIU's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and interim vice provost of Biscayne Bay Campus. He's to continue in both posts through the completion of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaffirmation of accreditation site visit.
COUNCIL NAMES: The Visitor Industry Council has appointed George Cozonis as chairman. He serves on the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau's board and was general manager of The Atlantic Resort & Spa on Fort Lauderdale Beach until Tuesday — the day before the hotel switched management companies from Starwood to Preferred Hotels & Resorts, according to a concierge at the hotel. The council position was previously held by Larry A. Rice, vice president and dean of academic affairs at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami. The council has awarded 180 scholarships to students aspiring to careers in hospitality management, tourism management and culinary arts.
HOTEL UPTICK: Greater Miami in 2008 moved from sixth to fourth in hotel room occupancy among the top 25 US markets at 71.5%. Miami also maintained its No. 3 rank in average daily room rate at $159.71 — all despite declines in both areas in December, according to Smith Travel Research. New York City ranked first in both annual occupancy and room rates at 81.9% and $276.02, respectively.
MIA DAY: Miami-Dade County officials proclaimed last Thursday TSA MIA Day, recognizing Miami International Airport and the "dramatic" improvements it made in 2008 in being named the Transportation Security Administration's Airport of the Year.
According to the proclamation, it was the "only major airport to improve its ranking by customers in the annual J.D. Power and Associates North America Airport Satisfaction Study, as it rose from 14th to 6th place." The airport's Federal Security Director Mark Hatfield praised the agency's employees for their "outstanding contribution to the strength of the airport and the vitality of this region" in an e-mail following the proclamation.