Miracle on 29th Street

It was Saturday night at a new club in uptown Miami and a hot young dance band was booked for the evening. An excited group of people waited outside. Inside the concrete building, liquor and beer flowed freely.

But this wasn't the scenario that owners of Timba, located at Biscayne Boulevard and NE 29th Street, expected. The anxious bunch outside was made up of anti-Castro demonstrators upset that La Charanga, a band from Havana, had set foot on American soil. A squadron of police officers stood guard while undercover cops milled around inside to keep the peace. Booze had to be served gratis because the owners couldn't legally charge for it. For three months city officials had refused to grant them the necessary permits.

Timba is the creation of Steve Rhodes and Omar Martinez, two devotees of live music and dance. Rhodes once featured such performances at World Resources, an Asian restaurant on Lincoln Road in South Beach. In 1994 Martinez hosted musical performances at a short-lived South Beach venue called Cafe Manana, located where Bash is now. But early last year, both had grown so tired of the crowds and parking hassles of South Beach that they decided to head for the mainland.

"It was specifically to get away from the Beach crowd and to get closer to the Haitians, the Jamaicans, the Cubans, the Brazilians, whatever," says Rhodes, a 36-year-old native of West Palm Beach.

The pair envisioned a multimedia production facility, bar, restaurant, and nightclub rolled into one, an "artistic and musical expression reflecting the diversity of our community in a tropical ambiance," according to Martinez, a 38-year-old self-described Marielito. They wanted lots of space. They hunted around Miami's ever-up-and-coming Design District, the haunt of haute art studios, haute furniture shops, and haute cafes, and found a haute location. Unfortunately the rent was too high.

So Rhodes and Martinez chose a beat-up 10,000 square-foot building on Biscayne Boulevard, next door to New Times. Police say the place was once a crack den (Timba's building, not the paper's). Prostitutes strolled past and petty drug dealers hovered nearby as the promoters began to renovate. They planned to set up a loungelike cafe and bar on the first floor. On the second story, they would lease out space for photo shoots, dance classes, and other artistic endeavors. "We want people to be able to sit and enjoy beautiful music once or twice a week, have drinks, and eat light food," Martinez says. "My work has always been very European. That's my style and that's what I want to do with this space."

As they proceeded they acquired two partners, Lionel Rogelet, a 25-year-old from Lyons, France, and Hugo Cancio, a local promoter of bands from Cuba. Given the neighborhood's emerging identity as a "media and entertainment corridor" (as the City of Miami has designated it), the entrepreneurs figured city licenses wouldn't be a problem.

Not so. Instead the four businessmen have had to slog through a nether region where Cuban exile politics and vexing City of Miami permit procedures intersect. After they invested at least $100,000 in the project, the city nearly forced them to abandon it.

This past November Martinez and Rhodes applied for a business permit (called a certificate of use) to open an "audio-visual production facility and banquet hall." They submitted the application to the Wynwood/Edgewater NET office. "[Approval] should normally take about two weeks," says Juan Gonzalez, director of the city's zoning and planning department. But NET administrator Luis Carrasquillo insisted they needed more parking spaces and a state liquor license before he would rubber-stamp their application.

Rhodes lined up more parking from business owners across the street, but held off on the liquor license. If necessary he could apply for a special-events license, which would allow Timba to serve booze and possibly even sell it without a liquor license. ("That's a gray area," notes Gonzalez. "But normally at a special event they give the liquor away.")

The Timba team prepared for the opening. They built bathrooms, put in lighting, decorated an upstairs office and lounge area, bought a dozen couches, arranged tables, constructed a stage, and set up two wooden bars. They sank about $100,000 into the place. Cancio, who has carved out a nightlife niche bringing bands from Cuba to Miami, booked La Charanga for January 29, Timba's opening night.

By the time the fateful date arrived, they had nearly lost hope of securing the permit. They suspected the NET office was either incompetent or deliberately stalling, so they decided to make a stand. They billed the show as a benefit for the Miami Light Project, which produces music and dance concerts. Admission was $25, and drinks cost the usual four to five dollars each (unless you were friendly with the bartender). The place was packed. The band jogged on to the stage in their red, green, and gold nylon robes and launched into their spunky, but somewhat cheesy, dance tunes. Jazz percussionist Tito Puente sat in for a few tunes. Some people wiggled to Latin rhythm such as salsa and son, while others raved about the decor and relaxed on the sofas.

Rhodes and his partners, however, were extremely unrelaxed. The night was unfolding tremendously, but there were two tremendous omissions: a business permit and a liquor license. They feared cops or inspectors would arrive at any moment, but miraculously none did.

"It's a total mystery to me why they decided to just chill out," Rhodes remarks. "I think we called their bluff or something, and they knew they were walking on thin ice and they didn't have the legal justification to keep us out of the [permit] process."

It was an expensive miracle, though. Rhodes claims they lost about $5000 that night after the band, security guards, and sound engineers were paid. The benefit was a bust, but Rhodes pledged $2500 for the Miami Light Project's annual fundraiser, which will be held this May.

The Timba partners grew more and more vexed about the permit problem. Was it a conspiracy aimed at putting the kibosh on club owners cavorting with Cuban bands, they wondered?

Two weeks later, on February 12, free liquor flowed again while a few dozen patrons listened to the Chirino Sisters and Barracuda. That event was billed as a benefit for Wee Care, a wildlife rescue center in South Miami-Dade. The nonprofit group took away only $30. The next night Cancio had booked La Charanga to perform again. This time Carrasquillo dropped by before the show and warned the owners not to charge for admission or booze. The Timba partners complied. About $5000 worth of alcohol was given away, Rhodes estimates.

"There's no question in my mind that they were going to sell liquor without a license," Carrasquillo grouses. "I'm here to enforce city codes and that's about it." Finally, last week Carrasquillo approved a permit for the production facility, after Timba's owners agreed to separately apply for the cafe and bar permits. Carrasquillo says he will sign that application only when Timba has a kitchen, tables for 200 people, and a liquor license from the state, as required by city law.

Meanwhile Timba's cash flow is drying up almost as fast as its booze supply. "All of the liquor that we had to get this place going is gone," Martinez moans. "We gave it all away. The cooler's empty. We have to start again. This is very sad."

But enthusiasm for a haute spot on lowly Biscayne Boulevard remains high, especially among the local cops, many of whom are Timba-boosters. "We've tried to redirect people's energies toward positive things in this area," says Lt. Mario Garcia, a City of Miami police commander in the Wynwood/Edgewater district. "I would like to see a successful business here because it brings life into the neighborhood." Fellow officer William Lopez is hip on Timba, too. "I like this layout," he comments, surveying Timba's sofa-laden first floor. "You can sit down and talk to somebody and not have to shout over the music. It reminds me of New York."



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