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Whitman is undeterred. “If the village of Bal Harbour doesn't prevail in [its fight to get the bus stop removed],” he says, “it's going to end up in court, just as sure as God made little apples.”
It might sound absurd that Whitman would try to put the kibosh on a bus bay that doesn't even lie in his city. But he enjoys the belief, conferred by his upbringing and his pioneer sensibility, that he is entitled to shape his environment in the manner he desires. If Bal Harbour resembles a small village, with its all-in-one post office/police station/town hall and its Church-by-the-Sea, Whitman's mall truly is the village green, the prosperous, beautifully maintained central focus of the community.
And Whitman makes sure it stays that way. As a founding and current member of the Bal Harbour Village resort tax committee, Whitman -- who is appointed, not elected, to the committee -- helps decide how millions of tourist tax dollars are spent. He is especially partial to municipal beautification projects. Because the only two public streets in Bal Harbour are Collins Avenue and 96th Street, these projects often have the direct effect of enhancing the look and value of Whitman's property.
A current proposal before the village council calls for resort tax money to fund the landscaping of the 96th Street median -- not just the Bal Harbour half of the median but the Surfside half as well. In public discussions among Bal Harbour city council members, the less-affluent town of Surfside is usually depicted as a deadbeat cousin, in this instance for refusing to pony up $189,000 to beautify its side of the street. Some village council members support the proposal; others resent having to cover Surfside's share of the project. Not to worry, says Whitman. Visitors to the area will soon be greeted by a fully landscaped traffic island separating the east- and westbound lanes on 96th Street, one that, in Whitman's words, “looks like Bal Harbour.” Like his mall. Neat. Clean.
While Whitman's official role on the resort tax committee is substantial, his influence is even greater behind the scenes. The committee consists of five members: Whitman; Carpaccio manager Alex Kalas; A. Anthony Noboa, manager of the local SunTrust Bank; Jaime Valdes, manager of the Sheraton Bal Harbour, across the street from the Shops; and village council member Jim Boggess. So Whitman essentially has not one but two votes on the committee, as it is unlikely that Carpaccio's manager will oppose any proposal put forth by the man who holds his lease.
Noticeably absent from the committee is a representative from the Seaview Hotel, one of only two hotels in Bal Harbour and one of only three businesses that actually produces resort tax revenue. Seaview manager Raj Singh, who used to be on the committee, calls it a case of taxation without representation. Why is he no longer on the committee? Singh, calling that “a very good question,” nevertheless declines to answer. “I have to make a living in this community,” he explains. Singh was the most vocal opponent of Whitman's now-completed Collins Avenue landscaping proposal. He wanted resort tax money to go toward advertising for his hotel instead. Whitman considered that shortsighted. And now Singh finds himself on the sidelines. In Bal Harbour Whitman's engine of progress moves forward not through conflict resolution or compromise but by manufactured consensus. Neat. Clean.
The Bal Harbour village council is composed of five members, one of whom is appointed by the others to serve as mayor. Whitman has never had any interest in running for the council. Spend enough time with him and you'll come to the conclusion that most elected officials run for office because they didn't get enough affirmation as children. Whitman did and doesn't mistake rank with power.
“My dad has a very strong personality,” admits Randy Whitman. “He's a bit of a manipulator.”
And Whitman Sr. sees nothing wrong with that. “If I'm not on the council, I can go and talk to them and lobby each one of them,” he explains.
Village Mayor Andrew Hirschl calls Whitman “a taxpayer like everybody else,” meaning he has no undue influence on village government. But the developer describes his role as being “continually in contact with the council.” His voice expands and wraps itself around the word. “I know I have spent more time, more hours of work on village business, than any council member. It's no contest.”
A few years ago, Whitman wanted to reopen Bal Bay Drive, a private street that winds behind the Shops. The opening would have given residents direct access to Collins Avenue and, not coincidentally, provided shoppers with an additional entrance to the mall. After studying Whitman's plans for the street, the village council rejected the proposal. The entrance, they said, would encourage too much traffic too close to a residential area. Mayor Hirschl cites this as a prime example of the village protecting the rights of its residents, even if it means saying no to Whitman. But the developer with the personal touch suggests he still might get his entrance. “Many on the council have come back since the proposal was voted down and said, “Ask for it again, Whitman, we'll give it to you.' I haven't gone back to them.”