OPA-LOCKA – Standing on the tarmac of Opa-locka Executive Airport, Stuart-based legal heavyweight Willie E. Gary characterized the Miami-Dade Aviation Department as Goliath, but said, “We have a history of dealing with giants.”
About 50 members of the clergy, the press and civilians braved the early-morning heat to attend the press conference.
Gary and his legal team were in town Wednesday to denounce the airport’s operating entities for initiating the eviction of Opa-locka Flightline.
Flightline, a tenant at the airport, is widely touted as the only black-owned, fixed-base operator (FBO) in the U.S. FBOs offer fuel, maintenance and storage services for business aircraft and privately owned jets.
Founded in 2007, Flightline also handles concierge services such as catering, ground transportation and dinner reservations, according to its Web site. IBM and Sears executives have utilized the company, as well as entertainers Enrique Iglesias and Lil’ Jon.
Flightline has threatened a billion-dollar suit against the Miami-Dade Aviation Department (MDAD) and AA Acquisitions, the leaseholding entity at the airport, alleging breach of contract and racial discrimination.
Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of PULSE, described the feud as the “corporate lynching of Flightline.”
Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and ecumenical group Clergy for Change were also at the press conference to lend support.
The appearance kicked off with invocations of the Civil Rights movement and exhortations for the black community to take collective responsibility.
There’s “a misconception of who the leadership is. The leadership is you, and it’s time that you take a stand,” said Gary Johnson, CEO of Clergy for Change.
There was also plenty of prayer.
Gary was introduced by firm partner Tricia C.K. Hoffler, who painted him in religious overtones.
Gary is “a God-fearing man,” Hoffler told the crowd, “a man that understands what it’s like to be on the rough side of the mountain. But he didn’t let that stop him.”
Gary is best-known for winning a reported $240 million verdict against the Walt Disney Corp. and a reported $139.6 million verdict for the Maris Distributing Company against Anheuser Busch.
Wednesday, he sought to frame the Flightline fight in broader terms.
“We’re not just fighting for Opa-locka Flightline. We’re fighting for the young people who are coming behind,” he said. “We’re not asking for anything that’s not right or looking for something for nothing. We want a level playing field. That’s what we’re seeking.”
The back story is complicated, to say the least.
According to Miguel Southwell, Miami-Dade’s deputy aviation director, in 1998 MDAD signed a contract to allow Opa-locka Aviation Group (OAG) to develop 240 acres at the airport.
But by 2005, OAG had failed to meet benchmarks for building up infrastructure and facilities. MDAD sought to void the contract.
One OAG lawyer, Milton Ferrell, saw an opportunity. Ferrell, now deceased, joined with developer Michael Adler and Leonard Abess, CEO of City National Bank of Florida, to form AA Acquisitions. They bought OAG’s lease for $19 million, according to the county.
AA Acquisitions then assumed management of the remaining smaller leaseholders at the airport.
Since then, the number of tenants at the airport – some of whom had been there for more than 20 years—has plummeted.
Bruce Rubin, spokesperson for AA Acquisitions, said that for two years, AA Acquisitions has sought to establish a lease, but Flightline refused to negotiate in good faith, and failed to operate safely.
“It’s clear that that they want to remain a tenant at Opa-locka Airport, but have every resident of Miami-Dade County pay their rent for them,” Rubin said.
But Alex Rodriguez, a former tenant who lost his fuel farm last year, thanked Gary and the principals of Flightline.
“Now, I understand that there is some justice,” said Rodriguez, who was evicted after 32 years at the airport.
At the same time negotiations with AA Acquisitions were being finalized, the Miami-Dade Aviation Department was also working on a contract with Flightline.
Flightline initially held a 5-year temporary lease, but was seeking a long-term, 30-year lease and 15 more acres on which to build. They say that once AA Acquisitions assumed management of the airport, they strung Flightline along and would not grant a lease upon the promised terms. Flightline says it began withholding rent because AA Acquisitions failed to perform.
Flightline principals Anthony Robinson and Ed Brown, Opa-locka’s former city manager and assistant city manager, respectively, stood at Gary’s side Wednesday.
“Flightline is only the lightning rod” for a greater issue, Brown said. There is a “lack of inclusion” in economic development opportunities for blacks in Miami-Dade, he insisted, adding that Flightline’s issues are only symptomatic of the problem.
“We are not a militant organization,” he insisted. “We service worldwide travelers, and whether black, white, yellow or brown, when they walk through our doors they get served! And treated with respect. And we want that same respect for our community.”
“It’s important that America has a level playing field for everybody. Not just black, not just white, but all of us,” Gary added.
Southwell, of the Aviation Department, calls Flightline’s charges, especially of racial discrimination, “perplexing.”
He noted that MDAD’s division of real estate management and development is headed by black men, Greg Owens and himself, and that they have been Flightline’s primary county contacts.
“We’ve been trying our best, bending over backwards to foster [Flightline’s] success here,” Southwell said. “We have very wide powers and exercised them to the fullest extent within the bounds of the law to accommodate these folks.”
He contends that in addition to withholding rent, Flightline has provided no certificate of use and no environmental insurance.
He also said that his office repeatedly contacted Flightline with lease proposals that went ignored for months, with Flightline refusing to redline changes in the documents to keep the process moving forward. Eventually, even other tenants began to complain that Flightline was receiving preferential treatment, Southwell said.
“I believe all the concessions I’ve made have been within the bounds of the law, but to have it painted as discrimination is ludicrous,” he said.
Pictured above is Willie Gary.