Guess Who's Coming... to Dinner Key?

Now playing: A fight over a prime piece of Miami bayfront property. Will the city fo Hollywood or choose a tamer role for the old boat yard?

In 1989 a hearty, hand-shaking Californian named Sherman Whitmore motored into Miami on a 68-foot Bertram. He stepped off the yacht into a cream-colored Rolls-Royce, drove to the Grand Bay Hotel for brunch, and began dropping hints about his $13 million West Coast real estate holdings.

It wasn't palm trees or marlin fishing or a mysterious dark-haired mistress that drew Whitmore to Miami. The object of his desire was Dinner Key boat yard in Coconut Grove, six acres of city-owned waterfront land occupied by two rusting seaplane hangars and the remnants of a once-thriving marine-repair business.

For the past decade the parcel at 2640 S. Bayshore Dr. has been a money-losing liability, all the more galling for its location 300 yards north of Miami City Hall. At the time Whitmore arrived, city officials were seeking a certain someone who could turn this albatross into a cash cow.

Whitmore sponsored a slow-pitch softball team, served boat drinks to political heavy hitters, and hired several well-connected consultants, including fundraiser and zoning lawyer Robert Traurig, former Miami mayor David Kennedy, and architect Willy Bermello. He rekindled an old friendship with David Brown, chairman of General Development Corporation and soon to be indicted in Florida's largest-ever land-fraud case. Sources say Brown, who had been in business with Whitmore in California in the early Eighties, introduced Whitmore to Coconut Grove real estate developer Manny Medina, who in turn helped him meet other local power brokers, such as city commissioner Rosario Kennedy and city manager Cesar Odio.

The long-term lease on Dinner Key boat yard became one of the most coveted contracts in Miami history. Amid heavy lobbying, commissioners considered development proposals from three finalists and decided Sherman Whitmore was their man -- against the recommendation of the city's own review committee. Whitmore promised to tear down the rusting seaplane hangars and replace them with a boat-storage warehouse, 102 new marina slips, a seafood snack bar, and a maritime general store.

The makeover never took place. Whitmore moved into the property on April Fool's Day 1990, announced that his financing had collapsed, and finally declared bankruptcy to stall an eviction suit by the city. Creditors tried to seize his yacht, but the yacht disappeared. So did the cream-colored Rolls. Whitmore's $13 million California empire turned out to be a house of cards buttressed with bank paper. When he vanished from Miami in early 1991, Whitmore owed taxpayers more than $350,000 in fees and unpaid rent.

"He came into town. He had a lot of parties. He did the schmoozing," says one former city official, who declined to be identified. "Basically, everybody bought his act."

Six years later the ghost of Sherman Whitmore haunts historic Dinner Key boat yard as Miami prepares to choose between three new development schemes and three groups of competing bidders who want to control the prime bayside property for the next 40 years.

The bidders include Hugh Westbrook, the powerful Democratic Party fundraiser and CEO of Vitas Healthcare Corp., who dreams of building an upscale farmers' market similar to Boston's Faneuil Hall or the French Market in New Orleans.

Also in the running is a high-profile partnership distilled from homegrown chutzpah and transplanted glitz and consisting of ex-commissioner Rosario Kennedy, developer Manny Medina, Hollywood film producer Steve Perry, and movie star Sylvester Stallone. Their plan: Build a movie and television production studio on the old boat-yard site.

A third group favors more traditional marine uses for the boat yard, and lists among its members North Carolina entrepreneur and sports-team owner Felix Sabates; State Rep. Carlos Lacasa; Miami Beach Marina developer Robert Christoph; publicist Julio Gonzalez-Rebull, Sr., and his son, prominent lobbyist Julio Rebull, Jr.; accountant and onetime CIA operative Felix Lima; and Antonio Zamora, former general manager of the city's Virginia Key Marina.

Each group of developers claims to know the magic formula that will transform one of Coconut Grove's last best pieces of public waterfront land into a popular showpiece. Each promises to rescue the site from neglect and return it to profitability -- an urgent concern in light of this month's revelation that Miami faces an unexpected $68 million budget shortfall.

The three new visions for Dinner Key arrived at city hall last month in response to a May 31 request for proposals (RFP). The RFP is the culmination of a community charrette, a series of city-sponsored brainstorming sessions begun in 1992 and intended to draw the public into a discourse on what the refangled boat yard should look like.

The city's RFP calls for preserving and renovating Dinner Key's cavernous seaplane hangars, built by Pan American Airways in the early Thirties. (Pan Am sold the hangars to the City of Miami after World War II. For the next 40 years the city leased the hangars and surrounding land to the Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Co.) The RFP stipulates construction of an "urban market," a new marina, a working boat yard, and a pedestrian walkway along the edge of Biscayne Bay. Beyond these essential ingredients, the document gives plenty of leeway for developers to freshly reinterpret the boat yard.

On October 10, city commissioners appointed a nine-member review committee that, beginning this week, will hear presentations from the competing developers, listen to the results of an independent financial analysis by a local accounting firm, and use a detailed scoring system to rank the proposals. After reviewing the committee's conclusions, the city manager will recommend one of the proposals to the commission for approval, perhaps as early as November.

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