County climbs aboard trip toward Casinoland transit stop
When county commissioners voted 11-1 last week to evaluate and negotiate a monorail linking Miami Beach to a Miami site ticketed for a mega-casino, they wrestled with what their vote could mean to other transit plans.
But other issues may be key to a deal with the sole bidder. The biggest is where funds would come from, because government would fully pay casino magnate Genting and its partners to profitably build and run the monorail.
Commissioners discussed the payment of $59.5 million a year for 30 years. Speakers agreed that’s more than the county could afford, so federal, state, and city aid is needed. “We have to get federal and state money in order to get this project done,” Mayor Carlos Giménez acknowledged.
But consequences of double-digit unemployment will hammer all governments. Layoffs continue, such as University of Miami furloughs in summer. The economy is whipsawing governments, draining taxes while forcing spending on everything from health to first responders and social services. Cities and the state will be reluctant to play.
Commissioners pinned hopes on some future federal infrastructure plan. US funds might spur the economy, but will infrastructure needs match pressure to spend to keep millions of families eating?
If a federal jackpot does emerge, bet that everybody will seek a share. It’s hard to bet in an election year that new rail in Miami would be at the front of that line.
Speaking of bets, a rail consortium deal would increase county ties with a principal, Malaysian gambling giant Genting, which owns the land on which the Miami end of the monorail would sit and has sought to build the world’s largest casino there. Bad times would be good times for Genting to persuade the state that legalizing casinos would help the economy.
Three years ago, in a little-noted deal, the county handed air rights at a bus depot on county land next door to Genting to build a 300-room hotel in return for a better depot below. The county and Genting are 50-50 partners for retail revenue under the Biscayne Boulevard site.
One reason the deal is little noted is that Genting has done nothing other than tie up air rights to use when it gets a casino on next door land it bought from the Miami Herald and the old Omni Mall. No sign of a new depot after three years. This is the company behind the transit deal, which like the hotel benefits primarily Genting, a point several commissioners did note.
Imagine your own monorail to bring a million tourists a year from Miami Beach to your casino with government paying your cost plus a profit. Plus, when it’s time to argue for legalized gambling, the county becomes your hotel and transit partner and ally at the state legislature.
Yet commissioners mentioned Genting only twice in long debate on the one-bid contract, a process that an unsolicited Genting offer initiated.
None of those concerns will arise in evaluating or negotiating a monorail, commission talk made clear. The focus will be technical and economic viability of rail and how a negotiated deal might end up – commissioners want to pay less. But in the deal, county officials told commissioners, they won’t assume any government other than Miami-Dade would fund even a penny of costs.
Then, if the mayor likes the deal with an offering group that includes his former campaign manager and finance chairman, commissioners will get a final yes-or-no vote.
Would commissioners factor in debts falling due concurrently with monorail payments, including far over $100 million a year for six consecutive years to pay off the Marlins baseball stadium that commissioners voted to build more than a decade ago? It seems unlikely, because the county seldom balances deals against other obligations.
Commissioners did dwell on how much is in the pot. Dennis Moss said money wasn’t there for South Dade rail so why should it be for Miami Beach. Barbara Jordan said the same about North Dade. But as Esteban Bovo Jr. noted, the first big transit project will drain the wallet for future routes.
When Genting last year unveiled a $400 million offer of Miami Beach transit to its casino site, the company vowed to pay $150 million of the cost itself. That offer triggered a request for bids that led to this point.
Now, the new bid is $770 million, with developers repaid every cent plus for-sure profit. Was it bait and switch? Commissioners didn’t dwell on that huge shift before OK’ing steps that could bring a final deal to their door for a yes-or-no vote.
Depending on how fast talks go, the mayor could leave in November (he’s running for Congress) before recommending yea or nay to a project that involves his former campaign officials, and one of three commissioners seeking his job could be mayor after all three exit the commission. Among them is the sole commissioner to vote no last week, Xavier Suarez.
We may learn meanwhile whether federal funds could flow to the county if it did want to cut a second deal with Genting before the first one rises.
The proposal assigns food and beverage, retail and even naming rights for the rail system to developers even though government would pay all costs to build, operate and finance it all.
So, would naming bring us a Casinoland station?
The answer may come down not to an affinity with gambling but to what other governments will pay the county to fund the Genting team. As Commissioner Joe Martinez said before last week’s vote, “We’ll see who kicks in and then we’ll take it from there.”