South Beach Greets the Season

Tourism dilemma: Will it be hip or will it be hip-hop?

It's safe to crack jokes inside Miami Beach City Hall again. That much was clear at November's meeting of the Nightlife Industry Task Force (NITF). In a fourth-floor conference room, the group's chairman, attorney Steve Polisar, gazed out at a long table's worth of clubland figures and then motioned toward Beach assistant city manager Christina Cuervo -- freshly returned to her position as nightlife liaison after a month-long decampment as the Miami Herald's vice president of human resources.

"She's back!" Polisar crowed to a roomful of applause as Cuervo high-fived the Forge's Shareef Malnik. Crobar co-owner Ken Barilich cocked a mischievous eyebrow and quipped to Cuervo: "I'm so glad you got fired from the Herald," to which she good-naturedly retorted, "I wish! If I'd been fired, I would've gotten a severance package."

It seemed like old times again, and the task force was happy to move on to the issue that traditionally consumes the Beach as the "season" commences: How best to lure the winter's free-spending tourists and thus fortify the local economy for the rest of the year?

There was talk of re-evaluating the Beach's 21-and-over-only law for nightclub entry, as well as taking a fresh look at the loophole that allows venues with kitchens, such as Billboardlive, to remain open to all ages. The recent passage of a statewide referendum that bans smoking in public places -- including bars, restaurants, and nightclubs -- raised concerns, as did the uptick in streetwalking prostitutes around a particular swath of Collins Avenue. "Don't we have a hooker-free zone?" earnestly asked Liquor Lounge owner Tim Wilcox.

Still the overall mood was upbeat -- a far cry from the NITF's October 8 gathering, when a sense of crisis reigned, signified by the standing-room-only audience of reporters, Miami-Dade Community Relations Board members, and city officials who outnumbered the actual nightclub owners present.

Polisar attempted to open those October proceedings with his usual joviality -- "I'd like to welcome everyone to today's meeting: Public Relations 101" -- a crack that was spot-on but drew only icy silence. Once again the question of race had reared its head, this time in relation to the Beach's much-vaunted preparations for Memorial Day weekend 2003, when many thousands of hip-hop partiers are expected to converge on the city. The weekend this past May had largely avoided the preceding year's chaos, but disappointing revenues overall revealed a larger dilemma. The city's chic cachet seemed to be eroding, and with it the high-end visitors required to fill the ever-expanding number of tony hotels, restaurants, and nightclub VIP rooms -- not to mention stoking the allure that keeps Beach real-estate values soaring.

To that end, NITF member and Level co-owner Noah Lazes had proposed a Memorial Day outdoor music and fashion festival, one highlighted by models strutting down "the world's longest catwalk" to be staged the length of Ocean Drive.

Fellow NITF member David Kelsey, who heads the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association, told the Herald: "We want back the people that have supported us, the fashion industry, Europeans, South Americans, New Yorkers." Goose-stepping models aside, it would seem a reasonable goal, and one echoed in conversations with any number of local hoteliers, restaurateurs, and club owners, all of whom are anxiously eyeing the depressed state of the economy.

Yet somehow Kelsey's comment was transformed into a surreptitious Ku Klux Klan recruiting drive, one amplified by a spate of subsequent media coverage wondering if deep-seated racism at city hall lay behind Kelsey's words. A wave of indignation had poured over Kelsey's head, and now he sat demurely at the NITF meeting, a CBS-4 cameraman poking his lens just a foot away from Kelsey's face.

This was certainly an ironic development. Kelsey had spent the past few years as a self-appointed watchdog, training a skeptical eye firmly on Miami Beach City Hall, decrying what he often saw as downright cluelessness when it came to supporting small-business operators. For example, gay tourism had been instrumental in transforming South Beach from a crackhouse-infested slum to the American Riviera, he argued. But now, thanks to an overemphasis on attracting bland corporate chains, Fort Lauderdale was siphoning off the gay crowd while the Beach was becoming Where the Boys Aren't.

Kelsey would stop virtually any journalist who'd listen, even cornering Kulchur as he stood in a video-store checkout line one evening. "Did you know we've doubled the number of employees at city hall since 1990, while the city's population has actually decreased?" he noted intently. "What does that tell you about the out-of-control bureaucracy here?" Kulchur nodded gravely, assuring Kelsey he'd look into the troubling situation right away, while gamely trying to hide a rental copy of The Bad News Bears.

Now, as the October meeting of the nightlife task force was about to begin, Kelsey had garnered his desired media attention -- and then some.

Despite the pack of reporters present, the meeting itself was anticlimactic, enlivened only by some preliminary drama as Kulchur entered the room a few minutes late, nearly colliding with Maggie Fernandez, the Beach's special-events coordinator. She was clutching a stack of photocopied meeting agendas, but at Kulchur's request for one, began slowly backing away. "I'll give you one in a minute," she sputtered, then bolted out the door and down the hall.

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