Paradise Lost, Again

As Miami Beach prepares for life in wartime, it's on its own

You don't need to tell the staff at the Delano Hotel that a recession is here. One look at the pool makes it pretty obvious. Gone are the days when only a strategically placed tip would snag you a prime deck chair as the $400-per-night set splashed and sweated in the afternoon sun. As of last week, you could have had your run of the place. Only a handful of bodies lolled about, mostly locals kicking back after a workout inside the Delano's gym. A bored-looking pool boy in all white paced back and forth -- ready to fetch a towel for somebody, anybody -- before resigning himself to desultorily kicking a tree trunk. Sprightly dance beats still wafted out of speakers atop the poolside bar, but they competed with the roar of stone being pressure-blasted in the adjoining showpiece courtyard. Business was so slow, management had apparently decided it was an opportune time to begin noisy renovations.

"It's been this way since ..." the bartender trailed off, but there was little need to explain to Kulchur any further. Since the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, tourism in Miami Beach has become practically nonexistent. Out-of-towners remain unwilling to get back on the airplanes that provide Miami-Dade County with 96 percent of its visitors -- a fact borne out by the single-digit occupancy rates at most local hotels.

This time last month, the Beach trope of choice was set to be "The Great Hotel War of 2002," the impending competition between the Delano, the Loews, the Shore Club, the Ritz-Carlton, and the W for high rollers and jet setters, the crowd that engendered the area's international media image. Tina Brown's Talk magazine had already dispatched a writer to shadow Delano owner Ian Schrager's battle maneuvers on Collins Avenue; nightclub impresarios were only too thrilled to pile on the lucrative hype, practically salivating at the return of season and an end to the burning mystery of which VIP section the Hilton sisters would deign to strut through.

Where have all the good times gone? South Beach empties out and looks for help
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Where have all the good times gone? South Beach empties out and looks for help

What a difference a day makes. Schrager's most recent move was a desperate ad offering entire vacant floors in his Manhattan hotels to relocating downtown businesses. Individual rooms also were available for $3000 per month -- less than half of what that lengthy stay would have previously cost.

To his credit Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin hasn't been attempting any spin control, choosing instead to help sound the alarm. At the September 20 city commission meeting, Kasdin invited several prominent figures to speak.

"How bad is it?" mused an ashen-faced Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "I believe it's the equivalent of Hurricane Andrew moving twenty miles north and coming in straight through this destination." Virtually every facet of the local economy was reeling from these travel jitters, he continued, with 25 million dollars being lost each day. Encouraging automobile travel from northern Florida and Georgia would help a bit, but "unless people get on airplanes and come here, we're in for tough sledding."

Needless to say, with a protracted and bloody war in Afghanistan looming (anyone who thinks otherwise should ask the Russians how "surgical" and "swift" their attempts to subjugate that nation were), consumer confidence and the resultant urge to vacation are far from the horizon. And in the meantime?

"Don't sit in front of your television!" implored Mera Rubell, grand dame of the Albion, Greenview, and Beach House hotels. To prevent massive local layoffs, she suggested eating out at a restaurant or spending a weekend at a Beach hotel -- preferably hers. "We'll give you a great rate!" she told Commissioner Luis Garcia.

Rubell also had an ingenious notion: Convert a chunk of the $15-billion federal airline bailout into travel vouchers, akin to the tax rebate checks recently mailed out nationwide. If the money is going to end up in the airline industry's pockets eventually, why not stimulate travel (and pump up the economy) along the way?

As the discussion turned to security issues, Commissioner David Dermer (and Beach mayoral candidate) made a plea for keeping politics out of it all. Yet it was impossible not to think of politics. Sitting directly behind both Rubell and Talbert as they spoke was a pack of political aspirants, all eager to be elected to the Miami Beach City Commission on November 6. Many of these hopefuls have never been spotted out in the community before; others are election snowbirds, emerging from their hiding spots only during the campaign season.

In a different era (say, last month), the scene would be quite comic. After all, the city's de facto leadership has long been the hotel owners, developers, and entertainment-industry honchos who effectively charted the Beach's course for the past decade -- not the elected individuals sitting up on the dais.

Now, however, with the financial spigot abruptly cut off, all eyes have turned back to city hall, putting into stark relief the question: Who is best suited to lead Miami Beach into an uncertain future?

One thing is for sure: Don't expect any constructive help from across the Bay. Oh, they'll be more than happy to grab their share of the Beach's resort taxes, but regardless of who wins the City of Miami's own mayoral contest, little guidance will be forthcoming in return. Of that race's front-runners, Joe Carollo, Manny Diaz, José Garcia-Pedrosa, and Xavier Suarez have all built their public profiles on little more than pandering to ethnic fears or Cuban-exile hysteria. Garcia-Pedrosa, who rarely tires of waving his Harvard degree as a sign of political maturity, is a particular reminder of what lies on the other side of the water. During his previous stint as Miami Beach city manager, when Garcia-Pedrosa wasn't busy trying to bar Cuban singers from performing at the Jackie Gleason Theater, he was having Mera Rubell physically ejected by police from his office, his solution to ending a business dispute. This is a man who obviously has a novel definition of working hand in hand with hoteliers.

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