Around the State
"Wastin' away again in Margaritaville" is OK, as long as you stay in a hotel or motel. That's the message from Monroe County officials who recently passed an ordinance banning house rentals less than 28 days. The new law, which covers unincorporated Monroe County, went into effect in January. A similar law covering Key West will go into effect later this year.
For years homeowners throughout the Keys have complained of rowdy, hard-partying tourists who invade quiet residential neighborhoods for a few days at a time, bringing their boats, barbecues and blenders. Thefts, vandalism and other petty crime are a constant concern, residents say. The noise can be horrific. "I don't mind tourists, as long as they're not in my backyard," says Charlie Mills, 66, a retired contractor from New Jersey now living on Summerland Key and the president of the Keys Wide Civic Association. "Vacation rentals are businesses, and business establishments don't belong in a residential neighborhood."
Last October the Department of Community Affairs agreed. In a 60-page recommended order, a state hearing officer found that short-term visitors were less likely to act like good neighbors and more likely to harm the environment. Supporters also say that the ban on short-term rentals will help relieve the region's shortage of affordable housing. Unincorporated Monroe County has about 4,400 licensed vacation rentals. Thousands more are unlicensed. Violators -- leasing agents as well as property owners -- face fines of up to $500 per day, 60 days in jail, or both. Within days of the law's effective date, citations were issued.
Not everyone is happy with the ordinance. Chuck Vowels, president of Latitude 24 Realty on Big Pine Key and president of the Monroe County Vacation Rental Managers Association, says the ban on short-term rentals sends a not-so-subtle message that tourists are not welcome. He says clients have already called up to say they will vacation elsewhere this year. "I'm not sure I blame them," says Vowels.
The rental association, together with the Marathon and the Lower Keys chambers of commerce, are challenging the new law in court. Their attorney, Kenneth Plante, argues that state and county officials failed to document the economic impact of the new law. A private study commissioned by the association estimated a loss of $300 million annually to the Keys economy, including up to $6 million in tourism taxes. County officials dispute the figures, insisting that tourism will only marginally decline, with many visitors simply opting for hotels and motels.
Opponents also dispute the claim that the short-term rental ban will ease the affordable housing crunch. Most rental homes, Vowels insists, are valued in the $300,000 to $400,000 price range -- far beyond the means of most workers. They also challenge the assumption that the ban will lessen the impact on the environment. Vacation rental homes are filled, on average only 30% of the year, according to Vowels, so banning short-term rentals will bring full-time residents to many of them, placing an even greater strain on municipal services and the environment.
Many residents are unconcerned, insisting that their primary objective is preserving a quiet, carefree way of life. Indeed, in January Key West residents successfully lobbied city officials to reject an expansion plan at the city's port. The expansion, which had the support of local shopkeepers and restaurant owners, would have greatly increased the number of cruise ship visitors. "People have always wanted to come here because the Keys are a very special, beautiful place," says Mills. "Keeping them that way sometimes may come with a price."
...in the news
Boca Raton -- BMJ Medical Management (Nasdaq-BONSQ) is the latest casualty in the once-promising physician-practice management business. BMJ, which handles marketing and other administrative duties for 22 practices in seven states, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Two other leaders in the physician-practice management industry -- MedPartners and West Palm beach-based PhyMatrix -- also have backed out of the business, citing rising healthcare costs and fee disputes with doctors.
W.R. Grace & Co. (NYSE-GRA), a supplier of specialty chemicals, building materials and sealants, and Florida's 20th largest public company with sales of $1.5 billion, announced plans to relocate to Columbia, Md. The Boca headquarters that employed about 130 will close; some 40 employees, including senior management, will move to Maryland with Grace.
Fort Lauderdale -- With cigar smoking losing the cachet it achieved during the mid 1990s, billionaire investor Ronald Perlman is unloading Consolidated Cigar Holdings (delisted by the New York Stock Exchange in January) in a deal valued at $725 million. Consolidated, which makes Dutch Masters, Muriel and other low-end brands, will be sold to Seita SA, France's largest tobacco company. Seita officials say no job cuts are planned.
Broward County is among the nation's leaders for business startups. A study by the Census Bureau found that the county added 1,366 new businesses between 1995 and 1996 -- a 3% increase. Only metropolitan Phoenix and Las Vegas recorded higher totals with 3,052 and 1,662 new businesses, respectively.
Wayne Huizenga's Republic Industries (NYSE-RII) will close its four remaining used-car reconditioning centers, including one in Miramar and another in Plant City. About 50 workers will be effected by the Miramar closing. The centers supply reconditioned vehicles for AutoNation USA used car lots and Republic's new car dealerships. Company officials say that the growth of Republic's new and used car networks will allow the dealers to perform reconditioning on site.
Another Huizenga company, NationsRent (NYSE-NRI), will be acquired by Rental Service Corp. (RSC) of Scottsdale, Ariz. NationsRent, an industrial and construction equipment rental chain with 135 locations in 20 states, was founded in 1997 and went public last August. The combined company, RSC NationsRent, will compete nationally with industry leader United Rentals.
Miami -- Miami-Dade County's efforts to convert Homestead Air Force Base to a civil airport suffered a setback after the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that the plan failed to assure protection of nearby Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. The appeals court's ruling places all development on hold pending the completion of an environmental impact study by federal officials. The study is expected in early 2000.
Anticipating a 115% increase in passenger volume between 1995 and 2010, Miami International Airport has won federal approval for a fourth runway. About half of the $200 million cost is expected to come from federal funds; the other half from state grants and airport fees. The runway is scheduled to open in 2002.
The city of Las Vegas spent nearly 10 times as much as all of Miami-Dade County on tourism advertising in 1997 -- $27 million compared with $2.8 million. That grim finding is part of a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce study that calls for a massive increase in spending to boost visitor totals. Even such tiny Caribbean island nations as Aruba, Cayman Islands and Barbados spend more on advertising than Miami-Dade, according to the study. Miami-Dade's tourism industry generates approximately 120,000 jobs.
As part of a nationwide consolidation trend within the thoroughbred race track industry, Calder Race Course agreed to be acquired by Churchill Downs, a publicly traded company whose home track is the site of the annual Kentucky Derby in Louisville. The acquisition will put the number of tracks owned by Churchill Downs at five, allowing it to move forward with plans to launch a year-round simulcasting network.
Port St. Lucie -- QVC Inc. announced plans to build a 50,000-sq.-ft. call center that is expected to employ more than 1,600 when fully operational. The West Chester, Pa.-based electronic retailer anticipates the center will open in the fall of this year.
Tamarac -- Culligan Inc., the world's largest bottled water company, is consolidating its south Florida operations at its new bottling facility here. When completed later this year, the new plant is expected to add 70 new jobs in the $30,000 to $35,000 salary range.