Give to the Rich, Take from the Poor

After years of go-nowhere schemes, that's the plan for Watson Island

Aggravation. That's Marty Tritt's problem — too much aggravation. His body is in bad shape: He has hearing aids in both ears, and a disease of the spine has rendered his legs almost useless. His feet are ulcerous and swollen. Sometimes he can't feel them. "I don't know why not," he says. "Circulation?"

And the 74-year-old is aggravated by money troubles too. "I'm down to my last $50,000," he says. "I probably won't make it a year." He and his wife Gloria, who is 70 years old, will have to sell their Bay Harbor Islands condo, he says, unless they come across more money.

She won't accept it, he says, and that aggravates him. "But what really aggravates me is that in this market, with so many casinos ... my wife has a wonderful voice — she's not Gloria Estefan, but still — and she plays piano wonderfully, and she won't let me go out to the casinos and ask if they'll let her play once or twice a week. That money could save us!"

After 25 years in business, Marty Tritt’s fuel and fishing supply store was shut down to make way for megayachts

The main sources of Tritt's woes are two overwhelming losses he suffered in 2003. First his eldest son, Barry, died suddenly, at age 43. Then a few months later the City of Miami forced him to shutter his 25-year-old fishing supply store — the single greatest achievement of his life — on Watson Island. "They were making money on my shop, and now look at what they have out there — nothing," Tritt says. "They're not stupid; they're corrupt. What it is, is the rich screwing the poor."

Watson Island's rich got a boost just a month ago, when the Miami City Commission passed a superquiet vote to help bail out Tritt's old neighbor, Jungle Island, the debt-ridden, privately owned for-profit park just north of the MacArthur Causeway. That vote came four years after Tritt and his shack were permanently evicted — though he had carefully paid off his own $30,000 debt to the city.

The 86-acre island was, and always had been, a dump — literally. It was formed in 1906 when construction crews digging out Government Cut piled their waste there. Chalk's airline began flying its signature planes in the 1920s from the island, and Cuban émigré Orlando Bosch took his famous pot shots at a Polish freighter from its weedy shore opposite the Port of Miami in 1964. His rationale: The Poles were commies, just like Castro.

It has also been a perennial home to failed, failing, and never-to-materialize business ventures. Over the years there have been endless proposals for the island, including, but not limited to, a space needle, a Pan-American exposition, a miniature railroad, a theme park, a blimp storage area, and a gargantuan statue of Christopher Columbus.

Perhaps the most well-known incident took place in 1986, eight years after Tritt opened his store, when then-Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo torpedoed a plan by a group that included Jorge Mas Canosa and UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick for a monstrous pink hotel and boat exposition. Mas challenged Carollo to a duel. Carollo suggested water pistols.

Tritt, who is Jewish, came to this storied chunk of land after taking over the lease for the island's only fuel station from a friend at Temple Beth Shalom in Miami Beach. "I got it cheap," he says, grinning. "I won't say how cheap."

The previous owners, Betty and Bert Thompson, had maintained little more than a tin shack with a pump outside, but in the true spirit of the place, Tritt thought big. He brought out a trailer, parked it next to the shack, and eventually knocked out the wall between them. Later he hired a carpenter to add a bathroom, shower, and storage room. An airbrush painter named Redbeard advertised the store's wares in giant letters that wrapped around it. "Bait," the letters said, "Beer."

Unlike his predecessor, who he says sold little more than potato chips, Tritt filled the store with fishing supplies, lobster traps, candy, souvenirs, and knickknacks. He called it Watson Island Fuel and Fishing Supply. "There wasn't anything he wouldn't sell," remembers Barbara Kiers, who worked for Tritt 16 years. "He would go to yard sales, closeout sales. He would sell tools, repair kits, everything, everything." In order to keep so much merchandise in plain sight, Kiers says, Tritt devised a scheme: "Marty had this belief that if you hung things from the ceiling on a string, people would bump into them and buy them."

Another attraction was brisket sandwiches. Sailors arriving from the other side of the world would ask if Tritt's wife Gloria had made brisket that day, Kiers says.

Some of the customers were the captains of boats in the neighboring marina. Others were adventurers, round-the-world sailors, and celebrities: Gloria Estefan came in to buy a lobster trap; Rosie O'Donnell stopped by a few times. Once Sylvester Stallone arrived, and Tritt pulled him aside and plied him with brisket sandwiches. And Tritt often gave odd jobs to the homeless, who lived in a shantytown on the island.

"Everybody thought of Marty as the mayor of Watson Island," Kiers says. "We had under-the-bridge dwellers all the way up to yacht owners — there aren't too many places in the world like it."

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."

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