The buyers of the failed Biscayne Landings project in North Miami have a novel idea for what to build on the city-owned, 193-acre site: a ski and snow-sports mountain park that would include a 550-foot-tall slope.
In addition to downhill skiing, Solar Mountain would include a 163-meter ski jump, ice-skating rinks, a snowboarding half-pipe, gourmet restaurants, an indoor tennis facility, and a 2,700-seat arena. All of it powered with solar and wind energy.
Imagine Ski Dubai but with water and manatees as a backdrop instead of desert and camels.
But after seeing the previous developer fail to convert the former toxic landfill into a thriving community of 6,000 condos and townhomes and 200,000 square feet of offices, shops and restaurants, some North Miami residents are justifiably skeptical about this latest gambit -- especially when they found out two of the new owners have close ties to Mayor Andre Pierre.
According to public records and video footage of the North Miami City Council meeting this past April 13, Solar Park Management Corp. put in the winning bid for Biscayne Landings at a foreclosure auction. State incorporation records list Pierre's former law partner, Marc Douthit, and the mayor's campaign manager, Willis Howard, as Solar Park's president and vice president, respectively.
"I am absolutely not comfortable with this," homeowner David Levin railed at the meeting. "There is a lack of transparency going on here. There needs to be a complete open discussion on who these people are and how they became involved."
Levin and other speakers were worried about a settlement agreement and estoppel certificate the city council approved for the lender of Biscayne Landings. An estoppel certificate is a document used in real estate transactions to affirm that no encumbrances -- such as tax or condo association liens -- exist to hinder a sale.
Steve Bass, president of the Keystone Point Homeowners Association, argued that the estoppel for Biscayne Landings was unfavorable to the city. "Basically, it says they have done nothing wrong and fulfilled all their obligations," said Bass, who works as an assistant county attorney. "Why is there no language to protect the city?"
Real estate lawyer Carol Keys and real estate broker Bruce Gibson pointed out that the previous developer still owed the city a $10 million personal guarantee and that the North Miami community redevelopment agency is part of an active lawsuit involving Biscayne Landings. "This estoppel is a total release of rights and monies owed to the city," Gibson said. "It should not be allowed."
Despite the objections, the city council approved the estoppel certificate. Before voting, Pierre acknowledged his relationships with Douthit and Howard but downplayed talk that either man had any influence over his vote."You may want to focus your energies someplace else," Pierre scolded the detractors.
Last week, Banana Republican interviewed Easton "Dusty" Melton, a former Miami Herald reporter and dean of the Miami-Dade lobbying corps, who helped put together the Solar Park team. Melton says he has known one of the principals, Norman Canter, for many years. "He approached me last year about his concept to create Solar Mountain," Melton says. "I have been advising him since then."
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Melton says he suggested to Canter that he include Douthit and Howard as partners. "Marc is a brilliant transactional attorney," Melton sings. "Willis knows North Miami and other north Dade communities better than anyone. If Solar Park is to succeed, I am confident it will be largely due to the talent and energy Marc and Willis bring to the project."
In a telephone conversation with me, the mayor again reiterated that his relationships with Douthit and Howard have no bearing on how he will vote on Biscayne Landings matters. Pierre says he has known Douthit for nearly 13 years. They dissolved their partnership in 2007. Pierre says he took out a $150,000 mortgage with a company owned by Douhtit to purchase the office building where the two lawyers had their practice.
"I have not spoken to either Willis, Marc, or their partners," Pierre says. "I had no say and no involvement with the way Solar Park Management was put together. And I will make sure to protect the interests of North Miami's residents first."