MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Gwen Graham has made the environment one of the cornerstones of her campaign. Her website declares, “Graham has set herself apart from her Democratic opponents by showing she has the firmest grasp of the environmental issues Florida faces.”
On one issue, however, she refuses to take a position: The American Dream Mall and Theme Park.
Featuring an indoor ski slope, a lagoon for submarine rides, and six million square feet of retail/entertainment space, American Dream will be the largest mall in the United States.
And it is being built on the edge of the Everglades.
Environmental groups throughout Florida have decried the project saying it endangers the ongoing restoration efforts for the River of Grass.
“While we are fighting like the dickens to ensure the survival of the Everglades and the source of drinking water for eight million Floridians, mega-developers and projects like these continue to put it all at risk,” noted Kimberly Mitchell, executive director, of the Everglades Trust.
The project promises to become a particularly difficult issue for Graham in her run for governor. The company founded and controlled by Graham’s family has a major role in the $4 billion project.
The developer, Triple Five, has aligned itself with The Graham Companies, which owns a critical piece of the 175 acres of land where the mall would be built in northwest Miami-Dade County. In addition, The Graham Companies have been given approval to develop an additional 300 acres of land around the project.
Almost all of Gwen Graham’s wealth is derived from The Graham Companies. In her financial disclosure forms she filed for 2017, she estimated the value of her holdings in the company as $13.7 million. In addition, she reported $829,625 in income from The Graham Companies in 2017.
If the mall project and surrounding development by her family’s business is a success, the value of her holdings will likely soar.
Asked if a massive development on the edge of the Everglades was a good idea, Graham told CBS4 Miami: “I’m so proud of my family’s long history in South Florida and our commitment to public service. And that project has been something that’s been through all of the proper channels, and will continue, as we’ve always conducted business in South Florida, to go through all of the proper channels.”
Asked again if the mall was good public policy, she replied: “Again I think what’s critical in this issue is that the proper channels have been followed. And, I’m proud – I can’t even begin to express how proud I am of my family’s public service here in South Florida.”
Pressed a third time, she repeated her answer: “Again, my family’s commitment in public service in South Florida is without question unparalleled. The proper channels have been followed in this project and will continue to be followed.”
Graham’s campaign noted she has never been deeply involved in the work of The Graham Companies. In the past, they added, she was a “director” of the company, but stepped down when she entered Congress in 2015 and placed all her company holdings in a trust. The campaign said she has played no role the American Dream deal.
Nevertheless, the project is fraught with various conflicts of interest if Graham were elected Governor. Although Miami Dade officials would take the lead in overseeing the project by issuing permits, various state agencies would also likely play a role, including the Florida Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection.
“What I would do if faced with the situation regarding anything that involved my family’s company is have someone work with it to make sure there is no conflict of interest,” Graham said. “My ethics, my integrity, my transparency, all that I do as Governor will be unparalleled. We are going to bring back the type of transparency that the people of Florida should always have regarding any activity in the Governor’s Office.”
Matt Harringer, a spokesman for the Graham campaign, later explained Graham would remove the Governor’s Office from any issues surrounding the mall and let them be decided by the remaining members of the Cabinet – the Attorney General, the Agriculture Commissioner and the state’s Chief Financial Officer.
“If elected, Gwen will completely remove herself from the state’s oversight of the project — requiring that all state decisions on the project be taken to the full Cabinet, where Gwen will recuse herself from voting,” Harringer said. “This would be an unprecedented level of separation that stands in stark contrast with the conflicts Rick Scott has created.”
Graham would not be the only candidate for governor who could face these types of conflicts. Her Democratic rivals Chris King, Jeff Greene, and Phillip Levine, are either developers or have large real estate holdings themselves. And on the Republican side, Adam Putnam’s family has extensive land holdings in Central Florida.
But it is the size and scope of the American Dream project – coupled with its location – that makes it stand out and likely to become an issue in the final weeks of the primary campaign.
Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez first introduced the American Dream project in 2015. The county commission, by a 9-1 vote, gave final approval for the project in May.
Supporters note the land is already zoned for development and is with the county’s Urban Development Boundary line, sitting near the intersection of I-75 and the Florida Turnpike. The project will create 14,000 full-time jobs when it opens and thousands more during its construction.
“The working people of Hialeah are crying out for something like this,” Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez told commissioners before they voted.
Critics point out 60 percent of the full-time jobs will earn less than $25,000 a year. And with 30 million visitors expected every year, traffic will become a major problem. The developer estimates 70,000 cars moving in and out of the area every day – and when The Graham Companies develop its additional 300 acres, it would add another 50,000 cars a day.
“The American Dream Mall is bad for workers and our environment,” argued Wendi Walsh, with UNITE HERE a consortium of workers in the hotel and food service industry. “Our economy doesn’t need thousands more low-wage, part-time jobs. We also don’t need more traffic and congestion. We need real solutions to our transit and jobs crisis. This is a rushed plan for a bad project.”
Wednesday afternoon, Walsh said she hopes Graham makes her feelings on the project clear.
“Right now Gwen Graham has an opportunity to take a stand on the American Dream mall and oppose it entirely or make sure that it is done in a way that will actually benefit the community and not be an environmental disaster,” Walsh said. “She’s a candidate for Governor saying she will stand up for environmental rights and worker rights. This is a moment for her to stand up and use her influence.”
Graham’s campaign said the project should remain a local issue.
“Gwen believes local communities should have the first and final voice on the project and to date, they have strongly supported it,” says Harringer, Graham’s campaign spokesman. “If the local community decides this project should move forward, as they have, she believes it should be built to the highest and strictest standards — and she intends to strengthen those standards as governor.”
Kimberly Mitchell, executive director for the Everglades Trust, said when she first learned about the proposal and discovered The Graham Companies were involved she was shocked. “I hoped it was a different Graham company,” she said, adding she has long admired the Graham family, including Gwen’s father, former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham. Mitchell said Bob Graham has always been a stalwart defender of the Everglades.
Mitchell said she would like to see Gwen Graham take a stronger position on the American Dream project.
“Yes I’m disappointed,” Mitchell said. “While I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gwen Graham and her family, my feelings on the mall still stand. The last thing the Everglades needs is a development of this magnitude.”
Mitchell said it is clear Graham is in a difficult position.
“I think it is putting her in a really awkward position,” Mitchell said. “I say awkward because I believe her commitment to solving this big, hairy problem of restoring the Everglades.”