No Christmas Spirit in July

For 60 days, beginning the first week in November and lasting through the first week of January, a thicket of towering pine trees along the Palmetto Expressway at Bird Road comes alive with the dazzling sparkle of some five million Christmas lights. It's Santa's Enchanted Forest, the holiday-themed amusement park, and it is a familiar sight to thousands of Miami residents who, for the past 21 years, have seen it from their cars or actually paid a visit.

Giant fake snowmen beckon families through a fake castle that serves as the entrance to the Enchanted Forest, constructed on fourteen acres of land that is part of Miami-Dade County's Tropical Park. The park charges no admission fee, of course, but Santa's Enchanted Forest does: $18 for adults and $11.50 for kids.

Once inside, visitors can roam among the 8.5 acres (most of it paved) that are open to the public. Overhead is the twinkling canopy of lights, while at ground level a variety of colorful Christmas displays compete for attention, many featuring popular cartoon characters. Further on is a classic carnival midway, where Mom and Dad have the opportunity to spend even more money on corn dogs, curly fries, funnel cakes, and coin-toss games. Rides like the Matterhorn and Crazy Mouse Roller Coaster are included in the admission price, but a typical family can easily drop $100 or more. Lots of fun for everyone.

This is a seasonal attraction, though, so make sure you get there during the two months Santa's Enchanted Forest is up and running; when the Christmas lights are turned off and the displays packed away and the roller coasters dismantled for the spring and summer, the fourteen acres of public parkland are locked up -- literally.

"This is a travesty," grumbles Miami-Dade County Commissioner Javier Souto. "It's unbelievable that we keep [the area] closed for the benefit of these guys from Santa's Enchanted Forest. Why is the parks department denying access to the people? Why are they protecting these private interests?"

Tropical Park resides in Souto's district. He is also chairman of the county commission's recreational and cultural affairs committee, which oversees the park and recreation department. No surprise, then, that he gets riled up when a slice of parkland is fenced off and padlocked. And it's no secret that Souto is a vociferous critic of the county's twenty-year, no-bid contract with Santa's Enchanted Forest, Inc., the family-owned company that has operated the holiday fair since it opened in 1983.

Souto loudly criticized the deal when it came before the county commission four years ago. He argued that the contract was illegal because it violated the county charter, specifically a section that requires competitive bidding and a voter referendum whenever the county seeks to allow commercial uses in a public park. Commissioners didn't competitively bid or request voter approval when the Santa's Inc. contract was approved in January 2000 because the county attorney's office said the contract was exempt from the restrictions. Why? Because Santa's Enchanted Forest is a "temporary fair." (Company records show that the fair attracts more than 150,000 visitors and generates an average of three million dollars each year.)

The controversy simmered until recently, when Souto discovered that the Tropical Park staff locks the gates leading to the fourteen acres when the fair is not in operation. The contract allows Santa's Inc. to control the area from July 15 through the end of January, and so as of last week the company legally could keep out the public. But weeks earlier Souto and his chief of staff, Bernardo Escobar, had visited the site and discovered not only the locked gates but also several permanent utility structures -- plus five million Christmas lights still strung through the pine trees. Escobar claims that's proof Santa's Enchanted Forest is no temporary fair. "It's not temporary when you leave things behind," he says, pointing out the pertinent language in the contract, which reads: "All attraction property, including the lights, must be moved during the nonuse period of February 1 through July 14 each year."

Further fueling Souto's campaign against Santa's Inc. was the March 19 arrest of one of the company's former principals, Brian Shechtman. He, three relatives, and an accomplice were charged by the Florida Attorney General's Office in an insurance-fraud scheme that allegedly netted more than two million dollars. Brad and Dean Shechtman, Brian's cousins, as well as Camille Shechtman, Dean's spouse, pleaded guilty to racketeering and fraud. Brad and Dean also pleaded guilty to money laundering and grand theft. (Brian Shechtman could not be reached for comment.)

When county inspector general Christopher Mazzella learned of Brian Shechtman's arrest from the Florida Department of Financial Services, he asked the county to review the Santa's Inc. contract. That's when Souto found out about the alleged criminal activity. "I don't know what these people are about," Souto says, "but someone needs to investigate their deal with the county." (Here's the deal: Santa's Inc. pays the county $200,000 per year in rent. It also made a one-time investment of $950,000 in capital improvements to Tropical Park, including two new soccer fields.)

Brian's brother Steven Shechtman is president of Santa's Enchanted Forest, Inc. He notes that his younger sibling resigned from Santa's board of directors this past January in order to pursue a theme-park venture in Tampa. (Last month county officials, responding to a request from Steven Shechtman, acknowledged that Brian was no longer associated with the company.)

Steven Shechtman says Souto is "100 percent wrong" regarding his interpretation of the twenty-year contract, and that neither he nor anyone from his company has ever instructed county staff to lock up the fourteen acres during the summer. As for the permanent utility structures, he says they were added at the request of the park and recreation department in early 1990, ten years before the new contract went into effect.

"I'm 100 percent clean," he says with exasperation. "Everything I've done with the county has been in good faith and aboveboard. I don't know why Souto is constantly disparaging our company, calling us shady and hurling other insults. There is absolutely no violation of the charter -- and my brother is innocent until proven guilty!"

Vivian Donnell-Rodriguez, director of the park department, says the fourteen acres are closed off during spring and summer because Tropical Park's management staff determined the area does not serve a recreational purpose outside of its use as Santa's Enchanted Forest. "That area is essentially an alley between the park's equestrian center and the Palmetto Expressway," she says. "We keep our dumpsters back there. Quite frankly, it was a maintenance decision to keep it closed to the public."

Souto is unsatisfied with that explanation. He believes the acreage is closed because the millions of lights and the utility structures create a hazard. But he moves on to another gripe, claiming that Donnell-Rodriguez told him she'd been under pressure from several county commissioners and then-manager Merrett Stierheim to push for Shechtman's no-bid contract in 2000. Donnell-Rodriguez denies it. "I don't recall saying that to him," she maintains. "There was no pressure."

Undaunted, Souto sticks to his story. "She said she was under a lot of pressure to do the deal," he recounts. "That's how she said it. And when we went to Tropical Park with [county manager] George Burgess two months ago, both of them repeatedly said the dangling lights and the electrical transformers posed a danger to children."

Souto recently enlisted the help of a powerful ally -- Miami attorney Dan Paul, the man who, in 1957, authored the county charter as well as the 1993 amendment restricting commercial use of public parks. Not long ago Souto took Paul out to Tropical Park for a firsthand look. "The county has long justified that Santa's Enchanted Forest is a temporary fair, but they have all these permanent structures out there and the county locks the gates in the off-season," Paul says. "Clearly the county should cancel the contract, put it out to bid, and then have it approved by the voters."

It seems unlikely the county will follow Paul's advice and cancel Shechtman's contract. It was reviewed, however, and the issue of year-round dangling lights got special attention. Since 1983 the county's building department has allowed Santa's Enchanted Forest to leave up the millions and millions of decorative lights, but no longer. On June 28 Donnell-Rodriguez notified Steven Shechtman that he must take down the lights after Santa's Enchanted Forest shuts down each February. "That is going to cost about $100,000 a year," Shechtman grumbles. "The county is only doing this to us because of Souto."


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