By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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In the mid-Nineties, the city began to seriously consider upgrading the island and shutting down the store, Tritt says. The Miami Children's Museum was planned for a spot just a few hundred feet from his store; it would draw a higher grade of customer. Then there was Parrot Jungle — now, after intense marketing consultation, called Jungle Island — which was to be moved from its home in Pinecrest and plopped just across the causeway from Watson Island Fuel and Fishing Supply.
The bureaucrats weren't direct. First they claimed Tritt hadn't paid them a percentage of the gas he sold. In 1996 the city figured he owed $40,000. Tritt went before the commission that year to dispute the number, and successfully persuaded an auditor that he owed only about $25,000, which he arranged to pay off gradually. "It was ridiculous," he says. "There are businesses that owe millions upon millions of dollars to the city. If it was about money, if they wanted a higher percentage, I would have said yes."
But, unbeknownst to Tritt, much more money was at stake. In 2001 the city commission enthusiastically voted in support of a megayacht facility on the island, to be built by developer Flagstone Properties for several hundred million dollars. It was then, says Tritt, that the city got serious about kicking him out.
In April 2002 he received an official eviction notice. "My lease was month-to-month; they had every right to kick me out," he admits. "But I fought it as long as I could."
He drew up petitions, wrote letters, and attended commission meetings, but to no avail. Parrot Jungle Island opened in June 2003, and Tritt was forced to close up shop just a few days later. Kiers remembers the day: "I drove off under the bridge, around Parrot Jungle, and over the MacArthur Causeway, back home. Marty stayed there — I think he was in sort of a daze. He just sat there with all his stuff around him, the remains of what was in the store."
Marve Sager, who attended Emory University with Tritt many years ago, was angry. "Very few things upset me, but it upset me when the store was taken away from him. I don't think there was anything like it in Dade or Broward or Palm Beach, and now it's gone."
These days the only remnant of Tritt's shop is a large, Stonehenge-like concrete slab, which Tritt had put into the ground in front of his store at some point. Painted in cheerful blue letters, it reads, "Welcome to Watson Island Marina." Now, with nothing around it, it juts out of the ground like a lonely hitchhiker's thumb, like a tombstone.
The Children's Museum has been relatively successful, but the megayacht facility promised three years ago is still just a dream. Recently the county approved a dredging permit for Flagstone, but commissioners have complained bitterly about the escalating costs and the project's general stagnation.
Worse, Jungle Island has proved a dismal failure. In 2005 it lost $5.6 million; in 2006 it was in the red for $2.8 million — losses not borne by the park's owners alone. About 10 years ago the county took out a $25 million federal loan to help bail out the private park, which hasn't made payments since 2004. Last year the City of Miami backed out of a plan to share some of the costs of that loan with the county. But a month ago city commissioners quietly agreed to assume 80 percent of the county's liability.
Aldo Bustamante, a real estate manager for the city, says Watson Island is becoming what developers have always hoped it would be: a tourist destination. The megayacht facility will eventually be built, he adds. As to Tritt's complaints he was chased out, Bustamante contends the city tried to find other locations but that, in the end, the eviction was necessary. "The reality is we lived up to our part of the bargain," he says. "For a long time there was nobody up there, so we allowed them to stay. But when it came time for someone to move in ..." He doesn't finish the sentence.
To Marty Tritt, it just doesn't seem right. "They're conning the people. If they had let me stay, we could have had fishing lessons for the kids."