With criticism, Miami-Dade County approves Omni redevelopment agency expansion
By Risa Polansky
Another element of 2007's city-county mega-deal fell into place last week after Miami-Dade commissioners agreed to expand Miami's Omni Community Redevelopment Agency — but by a narrow margin and under pressure from the city.
Two years ago, the Omni expansion and life extension was the linchpin of the global agreement between the county and city, making possible massive capital projects like a Marlins stadium, underwater tunnels to the Port of Miami and a revamped Bicentennial Park to house museums downtown.
The so-called mega-deal calls for expanding the Miami agency's bounds to include Bicentennial Park and Watson Island so the city can use money generated in the area to fund its $50 million share of the $1 billion port tunnel project and to help create a Museum Park.
So far, the plan has come together piece by piece without expanding the Omni.
A ballpark is rising at the site of the old Orange Bowl in Little Havana — without the aid of redevelopment dollars, officials say — and port tunnel construction is to kick off this year, with a $50 million letter of credit secured to cover the city share.
Redevelopment dollars are meant to back that bank letter, but the city needed the county to OK the Omni expansion to get at the money.
It wasn't a sure thing.
County lawmakers argued over the issue in November before deferring it.
More debate followed last week when they took the item up again.
But the city came ready to fight if need be.
The week before, Miami officials at their own meeting geared up to demand back the more than $11 million the redevelopment agency has paid toward the county's performing arts center construction loans — another element of the global deal — if the county didn't hold up its end of the bargain by expanding the agency.
In the end, it didn't come to that.
Miami-Dade commissioners agreed to the expansion by a 6-4 vote, but not without criticism and questions.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who staunchly opposed the global deal as a commissioner, made the trip to County Hall to push through the measure.
He implored county commissioners to hold up their end of the bargain simply because "a deal's a deal" — though he never called it a good deal, just one he "inherited" from prior administration.
"This is my Iraq war that I'm carrying," he joked late in the lengthy discussion.
Some supporters backed him for that reason.
"A plan is a plan and a commitment is a commitment," Commissioner Natacha Seijas said.
Others argued all they'd agreed to in the global deal was to consider expanding the Omni agency.
Some opposed it because they're anti-port tunnels. Others voted against because they question redevelopment agencies altogether.
Redevelopment areas raise funds for revitalization by capping property values and, as projects rise, collecting the tax increment generated above the cap.
"That's money that can go into the county that we don't have right now," Joe Martinez said.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez agreed.
"I've had my doubts about CRAs and their impact on operations," he said, asking Mayor Regalado whether he'd spend what the redevelopment agency is spending on projects in the Omni if he had the money available for general use.
"No," Mr. Regalado answered. "I would spend it on operations."
Exactly, Mr. Gimenez said. "I'm just not crazy about extending CRAs. I'm just not crazy about CRAs to begin with."
Jim Villacorta, director of Miami's redevelopment agencies, said the tunnel and park need to be included in agency bounds to use tax increment money from the existing area, not to generate more.
"This isn't an attempt to get more money for the CRA," he said.
Already nearly half of the agency's annual revenue goes toward arts center construction debt as part of the global agreement.
The Omni has sent the county $11.7 million over the past two years and the 2010 check for nearly $6 million is in the mail, Mr. Regalado said.
Not yet, Mr. Villacorta corrected him.
"Oh, good, because then we can keep it," Mr. Regalado said when it appeared the county might kill the planned expansion.
He also asked at one point whether the city could pull out of the stadium and tunnel projects if the county reneged on its end of the deal.
In the end, a county majority came through.
The original legislation presented didn't include Watson Island, as some say the city could have used redevelopment dollars to cover the tunnel payments even if the tunnel wasn't within agency bounds.
But following Bruno Barreiro's lead, commissioners voted to include in the newly expanded area the part of Watson Island that houses the Miami Children's Museum and the site of a planned heliport.
City commissioners must sign off and are expected to.
After the vote, a smiling Mayor Regalado said his goodbyes to county commissioners with tongue in cheek.
"We'll see you at the groundbreaking of the tunnel."