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 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.

Adler's preliminary plans include a new terminal and restaurants and retail shops. No financing is in place yet. Almost as soon as Adler signed the lease, he hit a crossroads with the tenants.

The tenants have banded together and hired attorney and Miami Lakes councilman Michael Pizzi, who wrote a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking the government to make sure any lease arrangements are fair.

He also questioned how Adler obtained the lease.

"It's our position that the takeover was illegal because there was no bidding, and no notice to the tenants," he said.

The FAA responded with a letter to Southwell of Miami-Dade Aviation asking him three questions: Did MDAD or the Adler Group refuse to negotiate with the tenants? What terms were offered? And what terms were offered to other tenants?

The county has yet to respond.

Owens, who directs real estate management for Miami-Dade Aviation, says the FAA allows the county to negotiate property leases without bid.

Pizzi argues that the FAA response to the county supports his argument: "It's a form of economic discrimination. And the FAA bans economic discrimination."

Southwell said Adler hasn't yet finished an analysis to come up with fair rent amounts: "The large majority of the tenants, we would like to keep them," he said.

CAN'T AFFORD CHANGE

Maria Arellano fears her family, which has run Aircraft Parts Sales Inc. from Opa-locka for over two decades, can't afford a rent increase.

Last week her father Patricio Arellano and several of his employees were servicing a big white Platinum Air 727. The Brazilian passenger plane will eventually be flown home. If Patrick Arellano had his way, he'd be servicing local carriers under an expansive new hangar.

Those plans were sidetracked when Stagecoach's plans were scrapped. Maria said because of the terms of the family's lease, banks have balked at giving the family a loan to build the hangar.

"How can we develop a business? All the county ever did was string us along," said Maria Arellano.

Said Adler: "The best tenant is one that grows as your development grows. I don't believe some of these tenants have the financial ability to build themselves.

"We are trying in good faith to have them sit down and discuss long and short-term plans. I would prefer that they stay and have viable businesses. But they have to be able to sustain themselves."

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