The pun is unavoidable: Firehouse Four was once the hottest restaurant in Miami. In the late 1980s, the South Miami Avenue singles joint, located inside a restored City of Miami firehouse, sizzled with lunchtime traffic from the banks and law offices on nearby Brickell. After work, yuppies returned for a roaring happy hour of music, margaritas, and mingling. In fact, that's where Lilliam Arrate, then a Barry journalism student, met (and first boogied down with) her future husband, then-County Commissioner Alex Penelas.
"It was one of the few places that were open in downtown Miami," recalls Mrs. Penelas, speaking from the comparatively sedate setting of the couple's home. "We met there, and we would go there when we were dating. After we got married, I got pregnant and our dancing days were over. Then, sometime after I had my son, we stopped over there one day to have some lunch. Much to our surprise, it was closed down. It was a sad day for us," she muses. "It was the end of our youth."
The restaurant's demise was fueled by a volatile mix of municipal bungling and private-sector greed. In 1984 Miami officials awarded an extremely cheap lease to an investment group that named itself after the city's abandoned Ladder Company No. 4., a 1923 landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The group restored the structure and opened the restaurant, but it also used the building as collateral for a $950,000 loan, an illegal maneuver inexplicably approved by city officials. When Ladder Company No. 4 defaulted on the loan, the bank foreclosed on the building, and the city was left with little choice but to pay $300,000 to get back what it already owned.
Firehouse Four has sat vacant since November 1994. Every attempt by the city to reopen the restaurant has failed, prompting more than one city official to speculate that despite its ideal location, the building is cursed.
The latest attempt failed last week.
A year ago, city officials sent out a call for potential tenants. Only three bids came back, and only two of those were qualified. Despite the tepid response -- and despite the fact that city laws require at least three qualified bids -- revenue-hungry city officials approved the selection process. A review committee proceeded to endorse the plans submitted by Kimberly Driscoll, a 24-year-old entrepreneur from Palm Beach who proposed to turn Firehouse Four into, as she put it, "the hottest place in town."
Driscoll promised casual fare on the main floor, with fine dining upstairs. There would be a roof garden, and a bakery flooding the restaurant with the aroma of warm bread. Billiards and darts in the Club Room. Plus the return of dancing and, yes, happy hour. In keeping with the firehouse theme, sandwiches were to be named with gruesome puns, included in a sample menu: California Brushfire, Miami Heat, Blazing Broken Burger Baguette, Raging Reuben, et cetera. Driscoll says the four-alarm focus was deliberately over-the-top; she and her investors hoped the restaurant would be the first in a national chain of Firehouse eateries.
To qualify as a bidder on the Miami project, Driscoll needed at least seven years of experience in the restaurant business. This she accomplished by factoring in her tenure at her family's Italian restaurant in upstate New York. To allay fears that she was inexperienced, she brought aboard a roster of heavy-hitting consultants and partners, including Gary Farmer, the man behind the Strand restaurant on South Beach, who was to be general manager.
But by far the most attractive aspects of Driscoll's presentation were the comely financial concessions she included. She agreed to pay the first three years' rent up-front, a deal that guaranteed revenue for the city no matter how poorly the business performed.
As revenue was (and remains) Miami's prime objective, the offer was well-received when it came before the commission in April. Miami's cash-strapped leaders were even able to finagle more concessions on the spot, including increases in the base rent. It is those concessions, contends Commissioner Humberto Hernandez, that may have killed Driscoll's dream.
"She really priced herself out of the deal by agreeing to everything they asked of her," theorizes Hernandez, an attorney. "She's inexperienced. She's young. And when they got up and started going, 'Wham! Wham! Wham!' she was so eager to get the deal done that she may have agreed to too much."
On May 7, the day Driscoll prepared to finalize the Firehouse Four paperwork, her financial backers abandoned her. "They simply didn't come up with the money and backed out," she laments. "They left me standing at the altar."
Presumably still salivating over Driscoll's promised revenues, compassionate city commissioners allowed her 30 additional days to assemble financing. The deadline to comply was last Wednesday, and she failed to meet it. Commissioners are scheduled to decide next week whether to allow the number-two bidder, Carlos Alamilla, to negotiate for a lease or to throw out the bids and start again, a process that could take another year.
Alamilla, naturally, prefers the former option. "I think the city would do me wrong if they throw everything out," he says, noting that his partner in the project is Jose Amador Fernandez, founder and former manager of the popular Little Havana restaurant Malaga. "I think they would not do me any justice, or wouldn't do any justice to the citizens of Miami. Because if the place would be open, then the citizens would be receiving some revenue immediately. The longer they postpone the decision on who is going to run it, the longer they wait to receive revenue."
Hernandez and fellow commissioner Tomas Regalado agree with Alamilla's logic. The city needs to "move forward" with this project, both officials say, as well as with any others that could ease Miami's well-documented fiscal crunch. "It has been six months since I've seen a construction worker in the City of Miami," asserts Regalado. "I drive by the Tower Theater [on SW Eighth Street], which is being restored, but they are doing all the work on the inside. I want to see some construction on the outside."
Commissioner J.L. Plummer, who favors tossing out the bids, counters that as it stands the city would be better off with Driscoll's project. Alamilla, he points out, has agreed to none of the concessions that encumbered Driscoll, and his business plan was labeled "bland" by a city consultant. Mayor Joe Carollo agrees with Plummer.
As does Kimberly Driscoll, who says she drives to Miami every day to talk to venture capitalists, bankers, stockbrokers, real estate agents, and anyone else who might possibly help her raise the million dollars she needs. And she still feels confident she can realize her Firehouse Four vision, even without Gary Farmer, who has backed out, she confirms.
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"She is being optimistic," responds Miami Asset Management director Dena Bianchino, with a raised eyebrow. "I'm glad that she is optimistic, but she also has to be realistic. She had a chance to bring her deal forward. She received a 30-day extension, and she still hasn't come up with the money."
Commissioner Willy Gort, who remains undecided about the issue, puts it even more bluntly: "She's out of the deal."
While the commissioners smolder over the ashes of Firehouse Four, the building itself continues to await a tenant for what is essentially a turnkey operation. "It's a shame," says Lilliam Penelas. "When you worked in the downtown area on a Friday night, instead of driving over to the Beach or to the Grove, it was something different. It was a change, and it was nice.