Florida Bulldog

With all eyes on COVID-19, Miami-Dade pols, insiders look to steer hotel deal and pass no-bid parks deal

Glittery, multi-colored archway entrance to Santa's Enchanted Forest
Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez wants another no-bid contract for the Fort Lauderdale operator of Santa’s Enchanted Forest, a seasonal attraction at Tropical Park for decades.

By Francisco Alvarado,

Already owning the highest COVID-19 rate of infections and deaths in Florida and dealing with an unemployment rate that more than doubled in March, Miami-Dade County has its hands full trying to contain the fallout from the global pandemic that has jarred life across the world to a near halt.

At the same time, a couple of Miami-Dade commissioners are laying the groundwork to extend a no-bid contract to a holiday theme park operator and steer an abandoned Miami International Airport hotel deal to a development team featuring two entrenched County Hall insiders.

On Monday morning, Miami-Dade Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson’s policy council, which is made up of her and six other county commissioners, is holding a virtual meeting to consider recommending a slate of COVID-19 measures for approval by the full commission.

Some of the proposed legislation includes directing Mayor Carlos Gimenez to prepare a report analyzing racial, ethnic and demographic data of county residents who have tested positive and coming up with a financial relief plan for county parks vendors who have been unable to earn a paycheck since public places were closed last month.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo wants to be mayor. He also wants to steer airport hotel developments to campaign rainmakers.

At the Monday meeting, council member Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo wants his colleagues to discuss the development of a new hotel at Miami International Airport at a time airport revenues have tanked and the hotel industry has cratered as a result of travel bans and local government shutdowns on new bookings. Another council member, Commissioner Joe Martinez, wants to instruct Gimenez to waive competitive bidding and accept a proposal from the owners of Santa’s Enchanted Forest allowing them to hold their annual event at Tropical Park, which draws hundreds of people daily over a two-month period. Their no-bid contract expired last month.

In 2016, Miami-Dade officials deep-sixed a massive commercial development at Miami International Airport proposed by Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht. Called Airport City, the 33-acre project included a hotel component in which the county and Odebrecht had reached a tentative lease agreement. However, the aviation department canceled the deal after determining the county could finance, build and operate a new hotel on its own. The airport currently has an existing hotel in concourse E.

Miami-Dade airport hotel revival

According to a recent memo from Deputy Mayor Ed Marquez, a 15-year capital improvement program for Miami International Airport approved in 2019 now calls for two new on-site hotels. One would be located east of the Dolphin Garage near the airport’s north terminal and the second hotel would be built above an existing short-term parking deck that services all the terminals.

Ralph Garcia-Toledo, left, and Jesse Manzano-Plaza

Looking to get a jump on one of those sites are Ralph Garcia-Toledo and Jesse Manzano-Plaza, lobbyists-turned-businessmen who have close ties to Gimenez and are campaign rainmakers for several county commissioners, including Bovo, who is among 11 candidates running for county mayor in 2020. (Gimenez will be termed out and is running for Congress.)

Garcia-Toledo, finance chairman of Gimenez’s mayoral campaigns, and Manzano-Plaza, Gimenez’s 2016 re-election campaign manager, recently teamed up with Malaysian casino giant Genting in submitting an unsolicited proposal to build a monorail from Miami Beach to downtown Miami. Genting owns the former One Herald Plaza property near the MacArthur Causeway. Their company, Aqualand Development Ltd., is listed alongside Genting and Chinese electric-vehicle manufacturer BYD as members of the Miami Beach Monorail Consortium.

Miami-Dade Aviation Director Lester Sola told Florida Bulldog he’s had three meetings with Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza about developing a new hotel at MIA. “What was represented to me was that a group [Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza are working with] had negotiated with Odebrecht to purchase a plan to build a hotel at MIA,” Sola said. “This hotel was part of the original ‘Airport City’ proposal from Odebrecht.”

Sola said the two lobbyists did not discuss submitting an unsolicited proposal for an airport hotel. “Our approach was to do a competitive process for one or two new hotels at MIA,” Sola said. “I have stated this several times to the Board of County Commissioners.”

In addition, Sola said the entire capital program is under review due to the calamity on air travel and hotel bookings caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “We don’t know what the needs will be for the airport until we are able to determine the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19,” Sola explained.

Bovo did not respond to a Florida Bulldog message left on his cellphone and a request for comment through his spokeswoman, Nikki Whiting. Garcia-Toledo and Manzano-Plaza also did not respond to Florida Bulldog phone messages and emails seeking comment.

Santa’s Enchanted Forest

For 37 years, Fort Lauderdale businessman Steven Shechtman and his family have held on to a contract with the Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation Department to put on Santa’s Enchanted Forest at Tropical Park during the holiday season. Over the years, the annual event — which features animatronic Christmas-themed displays, midway rides and other carnival fare — expanded from being held between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day to being held from Oct. 31 until Jan. 5.

Santa’s, a for-profit company, has operated at Tropical Park since 1982 and has been awarded no-bid leases in 1992 and 2000. Admission is $35 per adult. The Shechtmans pay the county $300,000 a year in rent. In January, it appeared the Shechtmans’ Christmas monopoly was coming to an end.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez

The Parks and Recreation Department proposed that the county commission allow Santa’s lease to expire on March 14, which would trigger a competitive bidding process and allow other entities to vie for a contract to take over the fairgrounds at Tropical Park. The department’s concept was that the Shechtmans or another company could submit proposals with significantly higher rent payments to the county and more public offerings.

Yet meeting minutes for the county commission’s parks and recreation committee on Jan. 16 show the department’s proposed resolution was withdrawn. Since then, Martinez is sponsoring a resolution that would have the county enter into a new contract with Santa’s and waive competitive bidding for a 2020 edition of the holiday theme park.

According to the resolution to be considered Monday, the Parks and Recreation Department is in the process of preparing a competitive solicitation process that may take several months to complete. “Santa’s has proposed to continue operation of Santa’s Enchanted Forest in 2020 so as to allow the County to complete its competitive solicitation process,” the resolution states.

Martinez did not respond to Florida Bulldog requests for comment. Steven Shechtman did not respond to an email request for comment, and the phone number listed on Santa’s website is disconnected.

The resolution does not address how Santa’s will be able to operate if measures designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus are still in place during the fall and winter.

During a virtual press conference on April 17, Gimenez did not offer a timeline for reopening parks, but cautioned that allowing people back into public spaces would come with many restrictions. For instance, parks would be closed to team sports, but running and singles tennis would be allowed.

“If you want to play some catch with your daughter or your son, that’s probably going to be okay. But you cannot have an organized baseball game,” Gimenez said during an afternoon press conference. “I want to open up as many activities as is safe to do, [depending on] what the medical experts tell us.”

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