PAHOKEE – While the mayor and commissioners still are gung-ho over the prospect of a partnership that’s expressed interest in subleasing and operating the Pahokee Marina & Campground and its restaurant, the four partners may have lost interest in pursuing their plans, at least for trying to take over this year.
Mark Miller, one of the partners and a retiree who’s lived aboard a boat moored at the marina for the past year, appeared before the City Commission at its regular meeting Tuesday, Sept. 26, to inform commissioners about what he termed “roadblocks” that are holding things up. For a good half-hour, he told the partners’ side of the story to commissioners, who seemed to know little about recent developments on the proposal, and then they all listened to an extended explanation of legal hurdles that City Attorney Gary Brandenburg insisted do exist and must be overcome before the partners’ plans can be set in motion.
A special commission meeting set for early September regarding a proposed deal had been abruptly canceled, and then Hurricane Irma ground everything to a stop in Florida for a week. A few days later, the city manager, attorney, the partners and their lawyer met at an office in West Palm Beach.
Mr. Miller started at last week’s meeting by asking commissioners if they still were on board with Clara Murvin’s July 25 “Let’s just get it done” motion, complaining, “Nothing has happened” since the parties gathered on Wednesday, Sept. 13, at the behest of Palm Beach County Business Development Board (BDB) CEO Kelly Smallridge, who Mr. Miller said “wanted to know what was holding it up.”
Although he prefaced the rest of his remarks with “I’m not here to point blame” and praised the work of City Manager Chandler Williamson and a former assistant manager in getting state aid for Pahokee waterfront projects – saying they’d done “a great job” and that “Pahokee’s gotten all the money they need to do this” – he also said: “Nothing has started yet. Every roadblock has been put up. What’s come about since the hurricane (Irma) and this delay is the interest of the parties has waned.”
The other partners are Robert Miller and his son Bob Miller of the Miller Restaurant Group, and Robert Lambert, CEO of Cruise America Associates LLC, based in Fort Lauderdale. The Millers own and run the famous Oyster House Restaurant & Bar in Everglades City, which suffered severe damage in Hurricane Irma and, Mark Miller said, may not reopen. (He is not related to the other Millers except through the partnership.)
After Irma and then Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Mr. Lambert, he said, “was awarded a FEMA contract to bring several of his cruise ships to Puerto Rico for housing.”
Mark Miller told the commission: “I’m trying my darnedest to keep Mr. Lambert and the Miller boys focused. What we all came up with was, instead of trying to roll the ball uphill, why don’t we take a simple path and look at what (a previous lessee) had. You all leased him the three entities for 25 years for $2,500 a month. I’d like to see those leases. If we approve it, we’ll sign them in 24 hours, and we’ll ask you to have a special meeting … and we can get this thing on target and going again.”
When he began polling commissioners about their feelings, attorney Brandenburg interjected: “Mr. Mayor, it might be helpful to know if you can legally do that before the commissioners respond. It doesn’t do the city much good to have someone ask a question, ‘Do you want to do something…’”
Mr. Miller replied: “I’m making an unsolicited offer, which is acceptable, and no RFP (Request for Proposals) would be needed and we would stand in the same situation.”
In a phone interview Oct. 3, Mark Miller said any movement on the investors’ ideas during what’s left of 2017 is unlikely. “I doubt that this will go forward this year. We’re already losing the season,” he said, pointing out that they had wanted to open the restaurant for stone crab season, by Oct. 15. Asked how his absent partners view the present situation, he said, “Their feelings are that they don’t need this, that we are bringing a skill set, this group, to the City of Pahokee that they’ve never had offered before.”
Part of the main problem that’s holding things up, though, according to City Attorney Brandenburg, is that the proposed project is at present hardly more than ideas, with nothing even fleshed out into specifics, much less committed to words on paper. That, plus they have to get Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet to approve whatever plans are formulated, if that happens.
There was some contentious back-and-forth between Mark Miller and Mr. Brandenburg about who had been told what and when regarding state and local requirements, but in the end the attorney seemed to have laid out clearly what had to happen before the investor group could take over the marina and campground and reopen the lakefront eatery.
After Mr. Miller’s lengthy presentation, commissioners asked Mr. Brandenburg to explain the process so that they and the investors could move forward. He had written a memo to all parties laying it out after the Sept. 13 meeting at the BDB chief’s office, explaining: “The result of that meeting was that we were going to take an unsolicited offer for all three parts, and that was going to have to go to … the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, which is the governor and cabinet, and they were going to have to waive the state requirement that these folks respond to an RFP (Request for Proposals). The state requires RFPs for all three of these parts.” Since the city never offered one for all three parts, that leaves only the “unsolicited offer” option.
The city had advertised an RFP for operation of the restaurant only in October 2016, which it extended at least twice, but there were no formal responses. “Now, these gentlemen were talking with the city during that period of time,” the attorney said, “but they didn’t respond to the restaurant RFP.” The investors did negotiate terms of a potential restaurant lease with City Manager Williamson, but nothing specific was put down on paper, he explained.
Mark Miller said Mr. Brandenburg knew all along the partners wanted all three parts, but he contended he didn’t find out until two weeks before the BDB meeting. “At that time, I told your lawyer that that was going to be a problem with the state. They won’t allow that to occur. The city does not have the authority to grant that,”
The attorney added that the partners wanted to negotiate “exclusively” but that he didn’t have the authority to do so, noting also that there were no other developers lining up behind the Miller-Lambert group.
Mr. Miller said, “If you need to go to the governor and board or whomever, then you go there.”
Mr. Brandenburg answered: “OK, listen, it’s not us that needs to go there. As I pointed out, Chandler and you have to negotiate a deal for the marina. Secondly, I have no idea about the campground deal. There’s not been a mention of the campground deal.”
The partners need to see previous leases, Mr. Miller said, and the attorney noted that they would be given to him if they hadn’t already been. What it came down to, he said, is: “How to move forward is to negotiate the deal on the campground, negotiate the deal on the marina. Then, your group is going to have to put together a presentation package to the governor…”
At that point, Mr. Miller said, “So another year. OK, so what this means is you don’t want us…” and began to leave the room. He was halted by pleas from commissioners to continue talking. But after much more discussion and further exchanges, Mr. Brandenburg put it succinctly: “All we have to do is agree on it, put it down on paper, and get it up there and have them approve it.”
In the interview, Mr. Miller said about how the partners will go forward: “Perhaps we might formulate something, which the commission wants, but as I told you we’re getting pushback from the other side … and roadblocks thrown up that I believe at this point that they must have another offer or something, because I can’t believe that they wouldn’t want to engage this group. Their previous operators … have all been disasters. You might want to add that this is being looked at very closely by the BDB of Palm Beach, Kelly Smallridge and also our Vice Mayor Melissa McKinlay for Palm Beach County. They really are concerned about the future of this whole project.”