"The slightest disturbance or the slightest screw-up and word is on the street that this project isn't legitimate and that kills us," then-water district engineer Joe Schweigart told Florida Trend ["Fragile," March 2001, FloridaTrend.com].
In the years since, as progress has lagged, some of the "disturbances" feared by Schweigart have emerged.
The Palm Beach Post has published a number of stories and editorials suggesting that the board has represented the interests of the sugar industry more enthusiastically than it has taxpayers. Environmental groups have also criticized board members as secretive and hostile to environmentalists.
Some of the district's decisions haven't helped perceptions. Last year, it joined with the sugar industry in legislation that pushed back enforcement of some clean-up deadlines by a decade. The district then compounded the impression of a backroom deal by hiring state Rep. Joseph Spratt, R-Sebring, who shepherded the legislation. After the Florida Everglades Trust began running a 600-spot television campaign in October characterizing Spratt's $75,000-a-year job as a "reward" for his effort, Spratt abruptly resigned.
Some on the board still view much of the coverage and criticism as unfair. "It's not bad press. It's distortion of facts," fumes district governing board Chairman Nicolas Gutierrez, a Miami lawyer, singling out the Post. "This agency has spent billions of dollars on Everglades restoration yet it's being vilified" as soft on polluters, says Gutierrez, who also serves on the board of the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba.
In response, the district has been trying to burnish its image. In September, the board voted to hire the international public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for up to $2.4 million a year.
The district also has tried to speed up progress on the various projects. In October, with Gov. Jeb Bush, the district announced a $1.5-billion plan to jump-start the restoration -- dubbed Acceler8. The plan would complete eight restoration projects 10 years ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile, however, the deal with Hill & Knowlton became its own issue. The trust began planning a second series of ads critical of the contract. Ultimately, Hill & Knowlton resigned the account.
Eric Draper, an Audubon of Florida lobbyist, says it's important for the district to sell its mission to the public, but it's even more essential for it to improve its relationship with its environmental partners. "We provided a lot of the political advocacy that helped put Everglades restoration on the map," he says. "They are breaking up the partnership."
In the News
BOCA RATON -- Boca Raton Community Hospital board members are in talks with Florida Atlantic University over a proposal to become the teaching hospital for the university's just-opened medical satellite school.
Naples-based Bancshares of Florida (Nasdaq-BOFL) has opened a 9,000-sq.-ft. Bank of Florida branch on south Federal Highway.
The Boca Resorts, a chain of upscale hotels and resorts founded and controlled by Fort Lauderdale billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga, will be acquired by the Blackstone Group in a $1.25-billion deal.
BROWARD COUNTY -- The Broward Alliance, a non-profit economic development agency, says membership dues are declining even as the number of members grows. President and CEO James Tarlton blames $150,000 of the gap between projected membership income and actual collections on a change in the way cities are assessed for membership.
DELRAY BEACH -- Office-supply retailer Office Depot (NYSE-ODP) plans to cut 900 jobs from call centers in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio and Texas. The company estimates the move will save it $15 million a year. The company's CEO, Bruce Nelson, recently resigned.
FORT LAUDERDALE -- St. Thomas Aquinas High School has been designated one of the country's top 50 Catholic high schools based on a ranking compiled by the National Catholic High School Honor Roll.
HOLLYWOOD -- City commissioners have given tentative approval to Coral Gables-based Cornerstone Premiere Communities for a townhouse, condominium and retail project downtown.
MARTIN COUNTY -- A county commissioner's proposal for a short-term building moratorium so that contractors could focus strictly on hurricane reconstruction failed to sway the Martin County Commission, which expressed fears that such a move would hurt small businesses.
Some cattle ranchers are already anticipating a smaller stock of cattle when the market opens in July because of soggy grazing grounds and hurricane stresses.
PALM BEACH COUNTY -- A lawsuit alleges that up to 300 county employees who were fired following closed conferences and grievance sessions are entitled to reinstatement and back pay because the proceedings did not comply with the state's Sunshine Law.
County commissioners are threatening to sue the city of Wellington for alleged violation of a water and sewer service agreement that prohibits the village from extending its pipelines beyond a county boundary.
PLANTATION -- Four hurricanes proved to be too much for American Superior Insurance, which was taken over by the Florida Department of Insurance Regulation after executives notified the state that their exposure for claims was likely to exceed reserves.
RIVIERA BEACH -- A committee composed mostly of local residents has begun investigating the finances of the city's community redevelopment agency following audit disclosures that the agency was deeply in debt and lacking financial controls.
WEST PALM BEACH -- City commissioners have approved plans for a 26-story, 556-unit condominium development downtown. The project, which includes space for a $9-million community theater, would be the tallest building downtown.
Around the State: MIAMI-DADE
'Hole in the Doughnut'
A 56-acre 'city within a city' project aims to fill a void in downtown Miami.
by David Villano
The prospect of 3,500 new jobs in Miami's long-neglected urban core and $316 million in new property taxes over the next three decades has city officials speechless. "What can I say?" shrugs Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. "An unbelievable deal for the city."
The deal is Midtown Miami, a $1-billion mixed-use development on 56 acres of barren land a few blocks north of downtown Miami. Groundbreaking took place last spring. The property, the old Buena Vista Rail Yard, borders the stylish Miami Design District to the north and the revitalized Biscayne Boulevard to the east. To the west, local artists are colonizing a scruffy zone of commercial and industrial space. Co-developer Daniel Pfeffer of New York calls it "the quintessential hole in the doughnut."
Pfeffer and developer Michael Samuel acquired the property in 2002 for $34.5 million, envisioning a "city within a city," where residents would live, work and play within a compact grid of condo clusters and towers, restaurants, shops, parks and office space. The project calls for apartments atop street-level cafes and work/live units for artists. A streetcar will ferry residents to the city's business district to the south.
Pfeffer and Samuel are focused on residential development. Their first tower's 338 units, due to open in 2006, sold out in one day. Prices range from $200,000 to $800,000, with some set aside for affordable housing. Cleveland-based Developers Diversified Realty is developing the commercial side, consisting of a 600,000-sq.-ft. shopping center to include the kind of big-box retailers that rarely enter gritty urban centers: Target, Circuit City and Linens 'n Things, to name a few.
Pfeffer credits Mayor Diaz for fast-tracking the deal, despite some skittishness from city commissioners. In the end, Diaz signed off on the largest public subsidy in Miami's history -- a $103-million tax-free bond to pay for roads, sewers and other infrastructure. The bond will be repaid with property taxes, but not until the project is complete, leaving the city largely risk-free. Other funds will be raised through the formation of the Midtown Miami Community Development District.
City and county officials praise the project as part of an aggressive plan to stimulate growth in Miami's poorest urban neighborhoods by repopulating the downtown area with professional-class workers eager to flee the road-clogged suburbs.
In the News
MIAMI -- Citing his progressive leadership and his success at leading the city from the brink of bankruptcy to stable financial footing, New York's prestigious Manhattan Institute has named Miami Mayor Manny Diaz as its Urban Innovator of the Year for 2004.
Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System (Nasdaq-SBSA), the largest Hispanic-controlled radio broadcasting company in the U.S., has formed an alliance with media giant Viacom. The deal allows Spanish Broadcasting System to expand its network of 20 Spanish-language radio stations around the U.S. Viacom will take a 10% stake in SBS, gaining a long-sought foothold in the rapidly growing Hispanic media market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has selected Miami Dade College in downtown Miami as the site for its newly created Food Safety Institute of the Americas. The institute will help develop and promote effective food safety education and training programs throughout Latin America. Food safety experts say such programs are needed to safeguard food supplies from risks ranging from unsafe handling practices to contamination by terrorist groups.
Carnival Corp. (NYSE-CCL) announced a $1-billion stock buyback starting next year. The Miami-based cruise line also is raising its dividend from 12½ cents to 15 cents a share.
H.I.G. Capital of Miami and Endeavor Capital Management of Westport, Conn., won a bid to buy the bankrupt Supra Telecom for $26.8 million. Supra, which provides local and long-distance phone service to residential and business customers, employs 126 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The company says its new owner plans to keep the company in Miami.
MIAMI-DADE -- Former police chief Carlos Alvarez defeated Commissioner Jimmy Morales to become Miami-Dade's next mayor. The Republican ran on a platform of reform -- promising to restore trust and credibility.
The Performing Arts Center Foundation has chosen Los Angeles fund-raiser Al Milano to replace the retired Nancy Herstand as executive director. The foundation has raised $55 million toward its goal of $80 million for a performing arts center.
The Florida International University School of Nursing has received a $1-million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to help implement the school's doctoral program in nursing. The program, which will focus on addressing healthcare disparities among minority populations, enrolled its first class of students in September.
New York-based insurance giant American International Group (AIG) has announced it will relocate its Latin American property casualty division from New York to Miami's Brickell Avenue financial district. The move will create about 60 jobs, company executives say.
Barely a month after jettisoning its commercial real estate company, LNR Property Corp., Miami-Dade's Miller family has sold Union Bank of Florida to Alabama's Colonial BancGroup for $233 million in cash and stock. The move leaves family members with one principal asset -- home builder Lennar Corp. (NYSE-LEN), which family patriarch Leonard Miller founded in 1954.
The Trump Group sold its 148-acre Williams Island Country Club in north Miami-Dade to Coral Springs-based developer Transeastern. The purchase price was not disclosed.
Fulfilling a pledge to streamline what many consider a bloated bureaucracy, the Miami-Dade School Board has approved a recommendation by Superintendent Rudy Crew to eliminate about 700 positions -- 500 of which are open -- saving the cash-strapped district about $35 million. Most of the cuts target mid-level administrator positions such as career counselors at some elementary schools. Officials say all employees who lose their jobs will be offered positions elsewhere in the district but possibly at a lower salary. Crew, former chief of New York City's school system, took over for the retired Merritt Stierheim last summer.
SUNNY ISLES BEACH -- Developer Jorge Perez of The Related Group is teaming with Donald Trump to build three 45-story condominium towers here. Miami-area developers Gil and Michael Dezer also have signed on as partners. The project is expected to break ground next spring.