marine stadium plans

It can be daunting voting for a referendum, especially one like what Miami voters face Nov. 2 regarding who should be responsible for a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Virginia Key’s public marina, its waterfront access, and other areas off the Rickenbacker Causeway.

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“Most referendum questions are very vague and not often explained to the people voting,” said Robert Vernon, a former mayor of Key Biscayne and part of the 13-member Virginia Key Advisory Board. “A lot of times they’ll call their friends and ask, ‘How should I vote on this?’ or ‘What’s this mean?’ and that’s the problem getting the public to vote (informatively and wisely).

“Depending on the author’s wording, too, it might look very appealing to some living in the City (of Miami). But Key Biscayne can’t vote on this ... It won’t be on our ballot.”

Further complicating matters for those who already are beginning to receive ballots in their mail is a recent lawsuit filed against the City of Miami, alleging that City Commissioners violated competitive solicitation rules and are now misleading voters into handing a no-bid contract to a losing bidder.

The question on the Miami General Municipal and Special Elections ballot reads:

Shall Miami’s Charter be amended authorizing City to waive competitive bidding, negotiate, execute 75-year waterfront lease (marinas, restaurants, marine related uses) of approximately 27 acres (generally 3301, 3307, 3605, 3501 Rickenbacker Causeway) on the west side of Virginia Key with Biscayne Marine Partners LLC, for minimum:

  • $115,000,000 tenant capital investment
  • $2,750,000 annual rent (10% for Virginia Key Beach Park Trust) or fair market value
  • 6% gross boat storage, fuel revenues; 4% gross revenues from other sources?

In essence, voters could grant Key Biscayne resident Aabad Melwani, president of Rickenbacker Marina Inc., the authority to redevelop the Rickenbacker and Marine Stadium marinas into a larger complex, reportedly with restaurants, retail shops, and boat storage and fueling facilities for 45 years with two 15-year renewal options.

In the two previous bidding processes, dating back to 2016 and 2017, Melwani’s team reportedly placed last. Yet the current lawsuits state that the referendum does not give voters options and omits the fact that Melwani’s team twice came up short.

As far as Melwani, Vernon said there are no discussions about current vendors.

“I know he’s a really nice guy and I know what he wants to do is what’s best,” Vernon said. “But I don’t get involved with that, and neither do our Board members.”

More for Miami, a coalition to promote positive development in the county, is pushing voters to “Vote Yes on the Marina PARC Miami Referendum #440 to deliver ``More for Miami” more public access to the bay and more environmentally friendly protections, without raising taxes, its website reads.

It also points out that by voting Yes, “not only will we get the peace of mind of knowing we have an experienced, family-owned management team (Melwani) that is operated locally, but we will also get expanded public access to the waterfront, newly enhanced places for our families to exercise, play and eat, and new job opportunities for Miami residents. All of this, while protecting and preserving Biscayne Bay.”

More for Miami also claims a Yes vote will “provide hundreds of millions of dollars for our police, firefighters, and parks through increased private lease payments to the city” and that 10% of the annual $2,750,000 rent will go to the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust for the construction of the African American Experience Museum.

Vernon wasn’t quick to jump on board.

“First of all, I don’t think waiving the bidding in any process is a good idea — I don’t care if it’s Key Biscayne, Miami, the County,” he said. “There should be a competitive bidding process when doing capital improvements of any kind.”

Vernon was Key Biscayne’s mayor on July 22, 2010, when the City of Miami accepted the Virginia Key Master Plan, a series of comprehensive controls and policies designed to protect and preserve the area, from mangrove to Marine Stadium restorations.

“In my opinion, we need to protect that Master Plan,” he said. “Six years of being on the Board, I find that that’s the feeling of everybody (on the panel).”

The referendum is the result of two resolutions, sponsored June 24 by Commissioner Ken Russell.

The first calls for the “waiver of competitive bidding for development of about 27 acres of uplands and submerged lands (actually just eight acres of uplands are involved, the rest submerged) for a mixed-use waterfront facelift.”

The second resolution calls for “creation of a dedicated rowing lane and motorized vessel exclusion zone, the creation and maintenance of a no-wake zone, and establish a mooring field of no more than 50 vessels within the Marine Stadium basin.”

Dr. Leah Kinnaird, one of four co-founders of the Virginia Key Alliance, a supportive organization that has been gaining steam as a “player of sorts” trying to protect the area as a park for tourists and residents while gathering facts and informing the public, said, “Our stance is very much in favor of a Yes vote.

“The Melwani family, since 1983, have operated a marina next to the City-operated marina, and now the City (of Miami) realizes ‘We need to be doing a better job.’ We believe Marine Partners and Melwani have a reasonable plan … that fits well with the Master Plan and has an interest in the environment.”

Last week, a letter authored by one of Dr. Kinnaird’s co-founders, Sunny McLean, appeared in the Miami Herald, carrying a “Vote Yes” message.

In the letter, which supports Melwani’s efforts, she calls the referendum “misleading” for several reasons, pointing to the “dishonesty and impropriety” during the two failed Requests for Proposals (RFPs), a trip to the Third District Court of Appeal and 17 deferments.”The contract is no-bid because … the City Commission decided enough is enough, too much time and money wasted.”

Meanwhile, renovations to the boat ramp and trailer parking area on Virginia Key are well underway, thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the Florida Inland Navigation District, a total later matched by the City of Miami.

One piece of the puzzle

But it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle, one that may be being put together haphazardly, Vernon said.

Tuesday night, at the Village Council meeting, Vernon will address city officials and residents with approximately 16 projects that are either in the design phase, permitting phase or funding phase -- several of which could be completed within a year.

“The projects are all Master Plan projects, not something we just threw out there,” Vernon said.

“We’ve said the theme of this Board all along was that (the City of Miami) needs to take a holistic approach to the Master Plan, prioritize things and do things in order. They’re jumping all over the place.”

For instance, some say fixing up a boat ramp area at this stage might not coincide with the bigger picture of, say, potential plans for Marine Stadium.

“We’ve argued — and it’s really important for people to understand, this Advisory Board has no power whatsoever, they can take our advice or they don’t have to. We can come up with a resolution and the Commission can throw it in the trash can, and that’s what’s frustrating,” Vernon said. “We have smart, qualified people on this Board that are trying to help the City (of Miami). Oftentimes, I get frustrated when they don’t seem to listen, but sometimes they do.

“What I don’t want them to do is look at Virginia Key (just) as a revenue source ... How much money can we make?”

Key Biscayne resident Joe Rasco, who represents District 7 on the Virginia Key Advisory Board, said the ballot is simply a way for the City of Miami to gauge interest in amending the Charter before they take the real issue to voters.

“We haven’t seen what they’re going to do yet (specific plans), so it’s (too early) to judge,” Rasco said.

“If they accept (Melwani), they’d still have to negotiate further and then it would go before the Board. If the voters say no, they don’t want to lease, the City would have to go back to the drawing board to issue another RFP for a different plan, and then still would have to go back to the voters.”

Rasco, like Vernon, said the “holistic view” of Virginia Key always has been the goal.

“The Board wants to hold their feet to the fire (for any pending plans),” he said. “The Board has come out against (renovating) the boat ramp, which is not a good idea at this time, because, well, the Crown Jewel is the Marine Stadium, and until that area is fleshed out, it doesn’t make sense putting in the boat ramp (yet). There also have been concerns from the users in the basin that this is adding more traffic (before slow zones, or dedicated rowing lanes or vessel exclusion areas are adopted).”

Miami’s Marine Stadium, dedicated on Dec. 23, 1963, was built at a cost of $1 million (plus about $900,000 in dredging costs).

In September, Commissioner Raquel Regalado, the District 7 representative, hosted an all-Spanish Zoom panel discussion about preserving “The Most Cuban Building In Miami.” On the panel was Hilario Candela, who at 28 and then a recent immigrant of Cuba, designed the stadium that has played host to concerts, fight cards and speedboat racing.

The World Monuments Fund, along with the local Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, have helped get the endangered “architectural masterpiece” on a preservation list with the likes of the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu.

Lawsuit challenges vote

Virginia Key LLC, a partnership between Miami Beach-based RCI Marine and Dallas-based Suntex Marinas, recently filed its lawsuit against the City of Miami, asking the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court to require the City to complete the open and competitive process it had conducted for the marina project.

That open process led to Virginia Key LLC emerging as the front-runner on two separate competitive processes since the nearly seven-year tug-of-war has been going on.

There has not been a clear-cut reason as to why the bid wasn’t awarded in those instances.

The lawsuit states that “The City’s referendum language does not present voters with the option of accepting Virginia Key LLC’s bid, which had been repeatedly determined to be superior to that of Rickenbacker, but rather deceptively omits any mention of its superior proposals as well as the numerous rejections of Rickenbacker’s position.”

In July, the City Commission voted 3-2 to place the question on the ballot.

The lawsuit also stipulates that the City Commission has decided to ignore those results on both occasions and instead place a referendum item on the Nov. 2 ballot that asks voters to approve the current longtime family operator of the Rickenbacker Marina — Melwani and his Biscayne Marine Partners team — with exclusive rights and a no-bid contract to negotiate a long-term lease of the valuable waterfront property.

The lawsuit, in turn, is asking a judge to award the right to negotiate a new lease to the plaintiff, which is led by RCI Marine President Robert Christoph Jr.

Arnold Douglas Pilkington, Vice President and Director with the company Paradise Point Marina #20 Corporation in Pinecrest, also is named as a plaintiff in the Complex Business Litigation lawsuit, which calls for the court to prevent Miami from accepting results of the allegedly “misleading” referendum item and to award an estimated $4 million in damages (from previous rounds of bidding) to Virginia Key LLC.

Also named in the lawsuit is Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor Christina White.

“It’s much more complicated than (just the ballot language),” Vernon said. “You could still pass it, and the city would not agree to specific issues, so at least there are some safeguards. And having to work with Key Biscayne, too ... so, it’s not an easy task …

“I think it’ll take a few years to clear the dust.”

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