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How a mega-mall project became an issue in Florida governor race

The Graham family has historically avoided conflicts with its family company, which developed Miami Lakes. But this one isn't their first.
A rendering of the American Dream Miami project, which would include a theme park and indoor ski slope.
A rendering of the American Dream Miami project, which would include a theme park and indoor ski slope.
Published Aug. 8, 2018|Updated Aug. 8, 2018

Nearly 20 years ago, Bob Graham found himself in an unusual place: At odds with environmental groups and accused of a conflict of interests.

Miami officials were trying provide relief to a busy Miami International Airport, and they came up with two options. Build an aiport in Homestead, where it would be sandwiched in between two national parks. Or build one in Opa-Locka, next to the headquarters of Graham's family company, the Graham Companies.

Graham, who was then a U.S. Senator and who had served as Florida governor from 1979 to 1987, had for years backed the Homestead proposal, infuriating environmentalists. They protested outside his campaign offices and accused him of siding with his financial interests over his environmental ones. He eventually backed away from the idea, and the airport was never built.

Fast forward to now, where his daughter is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor and faces questions of her own about the family company.

What was once a personal dilemma for Gwen Graham — whether or not to publicly support the family company's involvement in the American Dream Miami mega-mall project — has become a political one, as her opponents publicly blast her for refusing to take a position on it.

A fire hydrant along Northwest 97 avenue that cuts through the proposed American Dream mega-mall site, located between Miami Lakes and Hialeah, just south of where I-75 meets the Turnpike.
A fire hydrant along Northwest 97 avenue that cuts through the proposed American Dream mega-mall site, located between Miami Lakes and Hialeah, just south of where I-75 meets the Turnpike.

Over the weekend, billionaire Palm Beach developer Jeff Greene aired television ads from Graham's interview with CBS4 Miami's Jim DeFede, highlighting her struggles to respond to questions about the mall.

Graham's campaign came back with an ad of their own on Tuesday, attacking Greene for going after her father. (Greene's ad does not mention Graham's father, but does refer to her "family's ties" to the mall.)

Greene denied it and shot back: "Gwen Graham is no Bob Graham."

Two of Graham's other Democratic opponents have also criticized the plan. Winter Park developer Chris King brought it up at an Aug. 2 debate, and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine's campaign strategist said he's opposed it from the beginning "because it doesn't represent his vision for a 21st century economy for South Florida and the entire state."

Environmental groups are adamantly opposed to the American Dream project because it would place a 175-acre entertainment complex complete with submarine rides and an indoor ski slope near the Everglades.

Although Greene has characterized the project as being "in the Everglades," it would be about five miles away, separated by asphalt companies and rock quarries. But environmentalists fear that it will spur additional development on the western boundary of Miami-Dade County.

Everglades Trust Executive Director Kimberly Mitchell has been adamantly against it, along with the Sierra Club and a variety of other groups. Despite those misgivings, however, Mitchell's group endorsed Graham on Monday.

"While we remain concerned that development will push the urban development boundary further west toward the Everglades, we recognize that the mall is within the current urban development boundary, and we now know Gwen Graham has nothing to do with the project," Mitchell said in a statement.

Yet Graham does stand to profit from its development.

While the mall is being built by the company that created Mall of America in Minnesota, the Graham Companies own part of the land where it would be built, and the company plans on building a mixed-use project on 300 acres south of the mall. Both the mall and the Grahams' commercial project received zoning approval by Miami-Dade County commissioners in a 9-1 vote in May.

The family company, founded decades ago, is Graham's greatest source of wealth. She owns nearly $14 million in company stock, and she made $830,000 in income last year from the company, according to her most recent financial disclosure.

Graham was an at-large member of the company's board until she resigned in 2015, when she became a member of Congress. Her campaign says that she has had no influence over the development of the project. Her share of the company stock is less than 5 percent, and she owns less than 1 percent of voting stock, her campaign says.

To avoid any conflicts, Graham has said she would place her assets in a transparent trust (her father kept his company assets in a blind trust controlled by his brother).

And if aspects of the project reach the state level, she would have her three counterparts on the Cabinet decide — the attorney general, chief financial official and commissioner of agriculture. The state would get involved in some aspects of the project — developers can't proceed without implementing some $200 million in roadway widening and interchange expansions.

"I am proud of my family's commitment to public service and my priority is making sure there isn't even the appearance of a conflict of interests," Graham said in a statement last week.

Graham's spokesman, Matt Harringer, said in a statement she "believes local communities should have the first and final voice on the project and to date, they have strongly supported it."

Greene's spokeswoman, Claire VanSusteren, said objections are over the project and Graham's refusal to take a stance on it. She said that if Graham's family needed the project for its very survival, taking a stance on it would truly put Graham in a difficult position.

"It's a tough position to be in if it was something that was threatening their livelihood, and it's not," VanSusteren said. "This is not an instance of a family that's struggling to make ends meet. This is something that they're choosing to do to grow their net worth."


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