Last August, Miami voters gave a developer permission to lease land on the city's sparkling downtown waterfront to build a 1,000-foot, hairpin-shaped tourist tower complete with thrill rides, breathtaking observation decks, restaurants and clubs. There was one key promise: No public money would be spent on the $430 million project.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado backs the SkyRise project, as does the Miami-Dade County mayor, Carlos Gimenez. Now, the city and county are being sued by Raquel Regalado — the 40-year-old daughter of the Miami mayor — and billionaire car dealer Norman Braman, a Miami resident and former owner of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
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Why? Because developer Jeffrey Berkowitz is seeking $9 million from an existing county economic development fund to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as streets, marina upgrades and so forth. Regalado and Braman claim in their lawsuit that the county funds would violate the no-public-money promise made to Miami voters — who approved the project with 68 percent in favor.
Oh, and one other twist: Raquel Regalado, currently a county school board member, recently announced plans to challenge Gimenez for county mayor in 2016, with Braman in her financial corner.
Raquel Regalado and Braman said in interviews that the SkyRise subsidy would be the latest in a string of projects improperly seeking public handouts. Both said a sour taste remains from the millions of taxpayer dollars siphoned off to build the Miami Marlins' $634 million, retractable-roof baseball stadium.
"It's the essence of corporate welfare," said Braman, who unsuccessfully challenged the Marlins deal in court. "It's just wrong. It's a waste of taxpayer money. I think people are fed up with it."
The tower itself would be one of a kind, rising a stone's throw from the Miami Heat arena on Biscayne Bay and near the city's new art museum. It will offer a 12-seat "skydrop" ride the plunges 650 feet, a 72-seat hang-glider "experience" that soars through typical Florida scenes and a 550-foot bungee jump that lands in an outdoor cafe. It will have three observation decks, a movie theater, a 500-seat ballroom, meeting and conference space, retail stores, nightclubs and restaurants.
"There will be no other tower like this in the world," Berkowitz said, noting that South Florida lags behind other parts of the state in modern tourist attractions despite its global draw as a glittering party and beach destination.
The developer insists it was well known that he would seek state and county money for public infrastructure improvements, noting that he is spending $30 million of his own money on SkyRise. The tower itself, he said, will use no taxpayer dollars and the project will meet all the requirements for the county funds — such as job creation goals, minority participation and economic impact.
A chunk of the money is being raised from foreign investors through a visa program that rewards permanent U.S. residency — commonly called a "green card" — in return for investments creating a certain number of jobs.
"To suggest that the project is being built with public funds is just not true," he said. "Nobody hid the ball here."
The timing of the lawsuit is also suspect considering Raquel Regalado's just-announced plans to run for county mayor, Berkowitz added. "I think it's all political," he said.
Raquel Regalado denied her motivations were driven by politics, pointing out that she also led a charge last year to defeat a ballot measure that would have authorized higher taxes for a new county courthouse. She said voters were clearly misled by the SkyRise referendum.
"The legal standard is, what did a reasonable voter know when they read the ballot language and they gave you permission?" she said. "It's not what one person inside the city knew."
Her father, the Miami mayor, recently wrote to the county to reinforce the no-public-dollars promise. County Mayor Gimenez, however, noted the $9 million is a tiny fraction of the overall project's cost and said the tower will overall have a positive public impact.
"It will bring hundreds of jobs, permanent jobs," he said.
The $9 million would only be paid after SkyRise is completed in 2019 and numerous certifications have been made. The terms of the agreement have not been negotiated, and would still face more votes in the county commission.
Although the lawsuit could delay the project, preliminary work is already going forward and Berkowitz said it will be built no matter what.
"Everybody understands that this is an iconic project that has the ability to redefine the skyline of Miami," he said. "The question is, why shouldn't we take advantage of an existing program that has been approved by the voters to encourage investment and create jobs? The answer is: we believe we qualify."
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