By Michael E. Miller
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Don's new attitude reared its ugly head last month, when he decided to cancel First Friday happy hour and the Funk Jazz Lounge brunch, two Royal Palm events that were popular with local blacks. Peebles also fired the hotel's general manager, Jesse Stewart, and sales director, Velton Showell. Both men are black. Suzan MacDowell, marketing promoter for the once-a-month brunch for WHQT-FM (Hot 105), the radio station that stages the event, says Stewart had wanted to continue the brunch, but after he was let go, she was informed that Peebles didn't want it anymore. "The sense we got is that they didn't want black people," she said. "That was my underlying feeling."
What bothers MacDowell is that Peebles has worn the "black" developer label like a cape since he opened the hotel last May. MacDowell remembers Peebles beaming triumphantly when he announced black activist and local attorney H.T. Smith was the hotel's first overnight guest. And at a December 18 benefit for Miami's Hampton House Motel held at the Royal Palm, Don took credit for his involvement in the restoration effort of the landmark building, famous for being a cultural and social epicenter of black Miami during segregation. The dinner was in honor of several people involved in the Hampton House preservation effort, including Peebles and Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler; both sit on the Historic Hampton House Community Trust, which is working the county to buy the historic building for $450,000.
Recently Peebles, who is donating his company's development services to fix Hampton House and convert it into a possible community center and museum, was walking down the central hallway of the Royal Palm to the building's main meeting room. As usual, he was dressed impeccably in a dark blue designer power suit. His heels clicked efficiently on the hotel's terrazzo floor. "So Don," I asked him, "if you really don't want to be labeled a black developer, why did you get involved with the Hampton House thing?"
He didn't miss a beat. "Well, as an African-American businessperson, I thought it was very disheartening that such a small project could not get going," Peebles said, his voice brimming with confidence. "Given the symbolism of the Royal Palm being built here on Miami Beach, where 40 years ago African-Americans couldn't stay [as guests] and had to [sleep] at the Hampton House, I thought there was no one better suited to help them get it done than me."
We were standing in front of a three-paneled polyurethane mural depicting the Royal Palm's history, including Don's involvement in its revival. I pressed him: "Then why did you cancel the Friday happy hour and the Sunday brunch? Don't you have an obligation to support something the local black community was beginning to turn into a social ritual?"
Don gave me an icy stare and retorted: "I have a responsibility to the African-American community, but not to a promoter who charged ten dollars a head and threatened to go to the press if I canceled his event! I don't acquiesce to blackmail. People are so quick to bring race into a business issue that it undermines the African-American community's efforts for all of us to have equal opportunity."
Standing under the soft glow of the 1940s retro-flying-saucer-shaped light fixtures traveling the hotel's hallways, you could sense Peebles's political winds shifting in every direction. Yesterday calling him a black developer was an insult. Today he is the Miami Beach version of baseball's Jackie Robinson, the first to bust the barriers. The only constant is his ability to sway: "From day one, we've faced low expectations," he went on. "That somehow we are less able than our counterparts and, therefore, it is a lot riskier to do business with us. The city treated the Royal Palm like some social program with no economic benefit. I've endured my share of knocks, but I set a standard in breaking barriers on behalf of African-Americans."
He didn't actually say it, but his look expressed: 'Yeah, I'm talking two ways -- you all right with that?'
And despite my many misgivings about SoFla's Donald-Trump-with-a-social-conscience-in-the-making, I felt myself considering how things are routinely done in Miami and Miami Beach... And saying, 'Yeah, Don. I know what you mean.'