In early January, Miami Beach lifeguards suddenly began ordering surfers, paddleboarders, and kitesurfers to ditch their local haunts and move south of Third Street. City officials had supposedly just rediscovered an obscure 1964 law banning the sports from guarded beaches.
But while the media focused on the surf scuffle, another battle was silently taking shape. Beach officials began cracking down on "illegal beach vendors," like the dudes with an extra board or two who rent them out and give lessons. At the same time, the city awarded a new, no-bid contract to umbrella- and chair-rental giant Boucher Brothers that will soon allow the company to rent -- what else? -- surfboards and paddleboards on the beach.
"Boucher Brothers has the money, the power, and the connections," independent paddleboard instructor Diomar Romero complains. "They pretty much skipped over everyone else and said, 'This is what we want to do,' and the city gave it to them."
Boucher Brothers has had an exclusive concession agreement for all of Miami Beach's public sand since 2001. The firm made headlines last November when one of its employees ran over two sunbathers near Seventh Street while picking up umbrellas. (A lawsuit filed by the injured beachgoers is awaiting a hearing date in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.)
Boucher's concession ran out late last year, however. Then, in December, the city commission quietly voted to waive the competitive bidding requirement and award the company a new, expanded contract.
Under the agreement, Boucher Brothers will install beach lockers and provide "nonmotorized water sports in North Beach." Romero says Boucher will be the only company allowed to set up shop on the sand and rent out surfboards or paddleboards.
"They are trying to monopolize the whole thing," Romero says. "No competition means no incentive for providing good customer service. There should be an even playing field."
Steve Boucher, one of the company's owners, declined to comment. But assistant city manager Hilda Fernandez says that sticking with Boucher Brothers was the easiest solution.
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"We already had a directive [from the commission] to pursue a nonmotorized water sports concession in North Beach," she says. "So we negotiated that as an additional service in the new agreement."
As for the no-bid process, she says, "We are trying to limit how many people are driving on our public beaches."