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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman August 22, 2018

In Florida governor's race, ad attacks Gwen Graham for mega mall project

Democrat Gwen Graham is facing attacks for her family’s role in the American Dream mega-mall project in Miami.

Unite Here Florida PAC, a union group that represents service industry workers, launched a TV ad that refers to the Graham family and the project as "their controversial mega-mall."

"Gwen Graham owns a $14 million stake in her family’s company that’s behind the American Dream Mall," says the text of the ad. "60 percent of the jobs at the American Dream Mall will be low-wage. ... While Graham and her family will make millions, Florida will be stuck with poverty wage jobs, endangered wildlife and massive traffic congestion."

The ad is running in advance of the Aug. 28 primary for governor. A union associated with the PAC has endorsed Philip Levine, one of Graham’s Democratic rivals. Levine said he is against the development, citing low-wage jobs and traffic.

The ad overstates the role of Graham and her family in the project, and more context is needed about the low-wage jobs and impact on wildlife and traffic.

The PAC sent us information from local news reports, as well as county records about the project.

American Dream Miami mall project

Graham Companies is involved in the mall project. But Graham has not served on the board for the company since she won elected office, and her family is not the project developer.

When Graham started in Congress in 2015, she stepped down from the company and put all of her assets in a transparent trust.

Graham owns about $13.7 million million in company stock, and made about $830,000 in income in 2017, according to her financial disclosure. Her campaign spokesman said she owns less than 1 percent of voting stock.

Graham said if the state had to act on the project and she were governor, she would recuse herself and let her elected counterparts on the Cabinet make decisions.

Graham has emphasized that her family isn’t the developer.

"My family is not building a mall. Period. End of story," she said during a forum in Jacksonville.

It’s true that her family isn’t building the mall, but approximately 80 acres owned by the Graham Companies is under contract for purchase by the American Dream developers, said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the developer’s lobbyist. That piece of land is a little less than half of the 174-acre project.

Triple Five, the company that developed Minnesota's Mall of America, wants to build the $4 billion mall project, which includes an indoor ski slope, hotel and a submarine lake. The project between Interstate 75 and Florida’s Turnpike in northwest Miami-Dade County is expected to draw 30 million visitors a year.

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Diaz de la Portilla said the amount of money the Graham Companies will receive from the land sale is confidential.

Jack McCabe, a South Florida real estate research analyst who isn’t involved in the project, estimated that the 80 acres would sell for between $2.4 million and $6.5 million.

The Graham Companies is also planning to build a mixed-used development on 300 acres south of the mall.

In May, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted in favor of zoning approval for the mall. In July, the South Florida Regional Planning Council voted against the project but that is largely symbolic because the county and the state have authority. It still has to go through several other approvals before it is built.

"Poverty wage jobs, endangered wildlife and massive traffic congestion."

County records show the American Dream will create about 14,530 permanent full-time jobs. About 64 percent of those workers would earn less than $25,000 a year. The federal poverty guideline is $25,100 for a family of four. For an individual it is $12,140.

Diaz de la Portilla said the developer projects 25,000 permanent direct and indirect jobs based on the developer’s experience at other malls. He said the county used a specific model to project a range of direct jobs of 9,236 to 22,331.

The project has drawn criticism from environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club and Everglades Trust. The trust endorsed Graham in spite of it.

"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," said Everglades Trust executive director Kimberly Mitchell.

The county staff analysis, which recommended approval, stated that the site contains wetlands. It also stated that the site is within the core foraging area of wood stork colonies and may provide habitat and/or foraging areas for several threatened and endangered animal species.

The county’s environmental resources department drafted provisions within the development agreement related to stormwater management, natural resources and endangered species, Diaz de la Portilla said.

The project is expected to generate 70,000 vehicle trips a day. Diaz de la Portilla said that the developer has to mitigate the impacts on the environment and the traffic, which includes spending more than $200 million on road infrastructure and public transportation. He said that the site has been inside the county’s Urban Development Boundary for over a decade.

Our ruling

A Unite Here Florida TV ad said, "Gwen Graham owns a $14 million stake in her family’s company that’s behind the American Dream Mall. ... While Graham and her family will make millions, Florida will be stuck with poverty wage jobs, endangered wildlife and massive traffic congestion."

The ad was imprecise when it said that her family’s company is "behind the American Dream Mall." That could create a misleading impression that her family is developing the mall.

Her family owns about 80 acres which is under contract for the developer, less than half of the future mall site. We don’t know how much Graham and her family will earn from the sale of the land, which is under contract, but one real estate analyst told us the sale could be for millions of dollars. Graham’s financial disclosure shows she owned $13.7 million in stock in the Graham Companies in 2017. Graham has not been on the board of her family's company since she won elected office.

About two-thirds of the permanent jobs will pay less than $25,000. That is the federal poverty guideline for a family of four, but more than twice the poverty level for an individual.

Plans show that the development site includes habitats for threatened and endangered species and will add to traffic in the area.

We rate this statement Half True.

Our Sources

Unite Here Florida PAC, TV ad, Aug. 16, 2018

Miami Dade County Commission, American Dream Mall application, May 17, 2018

Tampa Bay Times, "How a mega-mall project became an issue in Florida governor race," Aug. 8, 2018

Tampa Bay Times, "Jeff Greene says he sold his oil, energy investments as feud with Gwen Graham escalates," Aug. 8, 2018

Tampa Bay Times, "Labor union launches ads targeting Gwen Graham over the American Dream mega-mall," Aug. 15, 2018

Miami Herald, "Westward whoa: Planning board gives thumbs down to mega-malland 836 extension," Aug. 8, 2018

Miami Herald, "Five things to watch for as Miami-Dade prepares for American Dream mega-mall vote," May 17, 2018

Miami Herald, "Nation's largest mall wins Miami-Dade approval as county backs American Dream Miami," May 17, 2018

Tallahassee Democrat, "Gwen Graham's net worth tops $14 million," June 29, 2018

WLRN, "These Are The Wetlands Where Developers Plan To Build American Dream Mega-Mall," July 3, 2018

Orlando Sentinel, "Commentary: Malarkey Meter vets claims by Putnam, Greene and Grayson," Aug. 10, 2018

AP, "Miami-Dade approves megamall that would be largest in US," May 17, 2018

CBS4, "Facing South Florida: One-On-One With Florida Gubernatorial Candidate Philip Levine," Aug. 12, 2018

WPLG ABC10, "Panel urges Miami mega-mall be delayed over traffic concerns," Aug. 8, 2018

Sun Sentinel, "Massive American Dream mall tricky for governor candidate Gwen Graham," July 26, 2018

South Florida Business Journal, "North America's biggest mall and entertainment center coming:American Dream Miami approved," May 18, 2018

Interview, Austin Shafran, Unite Here Florida PAC spokesman, Aug. 14, 2018

Interview, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, lobbyist for Triple 5, developer of American Dream, Aug. 16, 2018

Interview, Matt Harringer, Gwen Graham spokesman, Aug. 16, 2018

Interview, Jack McCabe, McCabe Research & Consulting, Aug. 16, 2018

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In Florida governor's race, ad attacks Gwen Graham for mega mall project

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