BY MIKE SEEMUTH | 04/06/2014 1:34 PM | Miami Herald.com
A new terminal for passengers of private jets at Opa-locka Executive Airport looks like something out of South Beach. The sleek interior has a white terrazzo floor, a lounge area with a bar, and a passenger service counter that resembles the front desk of a boutique hotel. Outside the entrance, an abstract red-metal sculpture is installed among freshly planted palm trees.
Opened in January by a well-funded company called Orion Jet Center, the new terminal building is part of a surge in construction at county-owned Opa-locka Executive Airport, a former military training airport that is gaining popularity as a full-service station for private jets.
After a long development drought, construction activity at the 87-year-old Opa-locka Executive began picking up six years ago, creating fresh facilities fit for the region’s jet-set crowd. The number of private jets based there has shot up to 147 from 90 five years ago and from 53 a decade ago. Now more than half of the aircraft based there are jets, up from about one-third in 2009 and one-sixth in 2004.
“Opa-locka always had this stigma of being kind of a depressed neighborhood. … No one really wanted to go there in their private jet,” said Chris Blanchard, co-owner of Chelsea Aviation Group, a private charter-jet service based at the Opa-locka airport. But the development of fresh facilities at Opa-locka Executive in recent years has added to its list of lures for owners of private jets, including lower operating costs than at Miami International Airport.
“Private jet owners want to go to the nice, new, pretty buildings. They love that kind of stuff,” Blanchard said. “What we are seeing is a huge influx of South Americans: Venezuelans, Colombians, Brazilians … the guys who are coming in here and dumping money into the real estate market, those cash buyers.” Miami’s growing reputation as an adult playground also has added to private jet traffic at the Opa-locka airport. “You have things like Ultra, like Art Basel, the boat shows: Miami is such an event-driven town that you pull from everywhere,” he said.
In part, the airport’s growing popularity is due to the increasing number of celebrities, hedge-fund investors and wealthy international visitors who use their own aircraft or ones from fractional-ownership companies like NetJets when they attend events like Art Basel in Miami Beach and the Sony tennis tournament, or to use new multimillion dollar condos sprouting throughout the region. Its location seven miles north of Miami International and near major highway systems makes it the most convenient of the county’s three general aviation airports to downtown, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. (The other two, Tamiami and Homestead, are far to the south.) And it offers one of the longest general aviation runways in the nation.
Credit also belongs to three companies that do business at the Opa-locka airport as so-called fixed-base operators: Fontainebleau Aviation, Miami Executive Aviation and Orion Jet Center.
Like other fixed-base operators, or FBOs, the three provide products and services to owners of private jets and propeller planes including fuel, maintenance and hangar space. But the three FBOs at Opa-locka Executive also have collectively invested more than $125 million since 2008 in terminals, hangars, offices and other new facilities that support hundreds of jobs.
Orion Jet Center, for example, already had 200,000 square feet of hangars, offices and other leasable space at the Opa-locka airport when the company opened its new 18,000-square-foot passenger terminal in January. It leases space to a mix of tenants including aircraft mechanics, corporate flight planners and an exotic car rental agency as well as private jet owners.
“Orion has over 40 employees and dozens of tenants, which have hundreds of employees of their own,” said Eric Greenwald, president of Orion Jet Center and its parent company, AA Acquisitions, whose principal investor is former banker Leonard Abess Jr. Since the parent company obtained a long-term lease at the Opa-locka airport in 2007, “our overall investment, including our lease acquisition, is in excess of $60 million.”
Greenwald said AA Acquisitions has a long-term lease on about 200 acres at the Opa-locka airport, including its 45-acre Orion Jet Center campus. Under a conceptual master plan, the parent company would arrange for other developers to put up “well over a million square feet” of new structures on the remaining 155 acres.
Greenwald said one possible use of the 155 acres would be construction of an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul for one of the world’s two leading aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, both of which have large flight-simulator training facilities in the Miami area. Other possible developments include such non-aviation facilities as a hotel or retail center. “All of our land is aviation-accessible land, but we have flexible development rights,” he said. “We can develop up to 50 percent of our land for non-aviation use.”
In 2007, when AA Acquisitions acquired a 70-year county lease on the land it controls at the Opa-locka airport, the company’s investors included Abess as well as Miami industrial real estate developer Michael Adler and the late Milton Ferrell, an attorney who died after the lease acquisition. “I eventually bought Michael out,” said Abess, a private jet owner who has been flying out of the Opa-locka airport since the mid-1990s.
Abess said he long considered the airport ripe for redevelopment and jumped at the chance to invest in AA Acquisitions when Adler and Ferrell invited him to become an investor in the company. Abess made headlines nationwide when he divided $60 million of his proceeds from the 2008 sale of City National Bank of Florida among longtime employees of the Miami-based financial institution, roughly the same amount as AA Acquisitions has invested so far in the Opa-locka airport.
Abess said his family has put a personal touch on the design of such facilities as the new Orion Jet Center passenger terminal. His daughter Ashley worked closely with the architects of the passenger terminal and hired its interior designer. In addition, “she worked on all the branding, the website, our logo; all of our material for the public,” Abess said. “I didn’t change anything. I loved everything she had done.”
He owns the red-metal sculpture outside the Orion Jet Center passenger terminal, created in 2010 by acclaimed artist Mark di Suvero. “Mark’s a friend of my wife and I,” said Abess, whose wife suggested installing the sculpture outside the terminal. In addition, Abess personally worked with Miami landscape designer Raymond Jungles to create the green scene outside the terminal and provided the palm trees from his own stock. “I own the nursery the trees came out of,” Abess said. “It’s my hobby.”