Tenants fear change at Opa-locka Airport: Tenants and a new developer at Opa-locka Airport are at odds about the airport's future

Nov. 1--About a dozen longtime business owners at Miami-Dade County-owned Opa-locka Airport, who have survived for the past decade on month-to-month leases, may be forced from the airport Thursday if they can't work out new lease agreements with a new...


Nov. 1--About a dozen longtime business owners at Miami-Dade County-owned Opa-locka Airport, who have survived for the past decade on month-to-month leases, may be forced from the airport Thursday if they can't work out new lease agreements with a new landlord.

The monthly leases have lingered because the county had been mired in a dispute with the previous landlord, whose agreement with the county included a provision that forbade leases of more than five years.

Most of the airport business owners wouldn't agree to the provision, they say, because in order to secure loans to improve their businesses, banking lenders requested longer leases.

"We can't make people sign them," said Gregory Owens, who directs real estate management for Miami-Dade Aviation.

Over the same time, little or no improvements were made by the county at the airport, even though the previous landlord had an agreement that stipulated the county spend $60 million to fix sewage pipes and upgrade buildings.

Now that agreement is dead.

"We negotiated that away" on the latest lease deal, said Miguel Southwell, assistant director of business retention for Miami-Dade Aviation.

Michael Adler, whose AA Acquisitions has now gained the leasing rights to 240 acres at Opa-locka Airport, has yet to reach rental agreements with most of the business owners -- and a deadline expired Wednesday. The owners, who say they fear Adler will raise rents enough to kill profits, say they've hired an attorney and they're not going anywhere.

Adler, meanwhile, says he needs more time to evaluate what would be proper leasing agreements.

That's left business owners -- many of whom have refused to hand over financial information to Adler as he has requested -- feeling they're in limbo.

"I can't say I need a new hangar if I don't know what my rent will cost," said Sergio Alen, whose avionic installation and repair company ALCA Avionics has been at Opa-locka for 20 years. "We're not going anywhere."

Adler, who acknowledges he probably came on too strong, says some of the renters are simply "scared." He says he doesn't necessarily want them to leave.

MISCOMMUNICATION?

"We said we'd like to include you in the future," Adler said. 'But at the same time our business people needed to see their plans and business capacity. These have been construed as eviction letters. I said, 'It's not good for you, and it's not good for us, these 30-day leases.' "

"I will admit that we should have done a better job. Rather than them believing me, they thought I wanted to push them out."

Adler says many of the businesses at Opa-locka aren't significant businesses at all. He says they simply sublet the space to multiple tenants.

In the case of Elfi Thompson, whose husband started the business Suncoast Aviation more than a decade ago and died in 2004, all she does now is lease parking space for freight carriers.

"My husband tried to expand and get a longer lease," Thompson said.

Opa-locka Airport was once one of the busiest private airports in the nation.

Its recent problems spring from the late 1990s, when a company named Stagecoach secured rights to lease a large piece of the airport with the county. Its plan was to entice low-cost carriers -- which were thriving at the time -- to fly in and out of the airport.

The move turned into a political mess, with county commissioners eventually siding with local residents who were worried about traffic and noise. Stagecoach's request was denied.

So Stagecoach sued the county for $20 million. Its 90-year lease stipulated it didn't have to pay rent until construction began. Nothing was ever built; Stagecoach never paid rent.

Earlier this year Adler bought the leasing rights for $20 million from Stagecoach, which agreed to drop its lawsuit.

Adler then worked out an agreement with the county to lease about 240 acres at the airport for 70 years. His rent payments begin in November 2008.

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