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South Beach Greets the Season

How to keep the heat in clubland? Nightlife industry figures, such as David Kelsey (inset), ponder the future
Photos by Steve Satterwhite

It's safe to crack jokes inside Miami Beach City Hall again. That much was clear at November's meeting of the Nightlife Industry Task Force (NITF). In a fourth-floor conference room, the group's chairman, attorney Steve Polisar, gazed out at a long table's worth of clubland figures and then motioned toward Beach assistant city manager Christina Cuervo -- freshly returned to her position as nightlife liaison after a month-long decampment as the Miami Herald's vice president of human resources.

"She's back!" Polisar crowed to a roomful of applause as Cuervo high-fived the Forge's Shareef Malnik. Crobar co-owner Ken Barilich cocked a mischievous eyebrow and quipped to Cuervo: "I'm so glad you got fired from the Herald," to which she good-naturedly retorted, "I wish! If I'd been fired, I would've gotten a severance package."

It seemed like old times again, and the task force was happy to move on to the issue that traditionally consumes the Beach as the "season" commences: How best to lure the winter's free-spending tourists and thus fortify the local economy for the rest of the year?

There was talk of re-evaluating the Beach's 21-and-over-only law for nightclub entry, as well as taking a fresh look at the loophole that allows venues with kitchens, such as Billboardlive, to remain open to all ages. The recent passage of a statewide referendum that bans smoking in public places -- including bars, restaurants, and nightclubs -- raised concerns, as did the uptick in streetwalking prostitutes around a particular swath of Collins Avenue. "Don't we have a hooker-free zone?" earnestly asked Liquor Lounge owner Tim Wilcox.

Still the overall mood was upbeat -- a far cry from the NITF's October 8 gathering, when a sense of crisis reigned, signified by the standing-room-only audience of reporters, Miami-Dade Community Relations Board members, and city officials who outnumbered the actual nightclub owners present.

Polisar attempted to open those October proceedings with his usual joviality -- "I'd like to welcome everyone to today's meeting: Public Relations 101" -- a crack that was spot-on but drew only icy silence. Once again the question of race had reared its head, this time in relation to the Beach's much-vaunted preparations for Memorial Day weekend 2003, when many thousands of hip-hop partiers are expected to converge on the city. The weekend this past May had largely avoided the preceding year's chaos, but disappointing revenues overall revealed a larger dilemma. The city's chic cachet seemed to be eroding, and with it the high-end visitors required to fill the ever-expanding number of tony hotels, restaurants, and nightclub VIP rooms -- not to mention stoking the allure that keeps Beach real-estate values soaring.

To that end, NITF member and Level co-owner Noah Lazes had proposed a Memorial Day outdoor music and fashion festival, one highlighted by models strutting down "the world's longest catwalk" to be staged the length of Ocean Drive.

Fellow NITF member David Kelsey, who heads the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association, told the Herald: "We want back the people that have supported us, the fashion industry, Europeans, South Americans, New Yorkers." Goose-stepping models aside, it would seem a reasonable goal, and one echoed in conversations with any number of local hoteliers, restaurateurs, and club owners, all of whom are anxiously eyeing the depressed state of the economy.

Yet somehow Kelsey's comment was transformed into a surreptitious Ku Klux Klan recruiting drive, one amplified by a spate of subsequent media coverage wondering if deep-seated racism at city hall lay behind Kelsey's words. A wave of indignation had poured over Kelsey's head, and now he sat demurely at the NITF meeting, a CBS-4 cameraman poking his lens just a foot away from Kelsey's face.

This was certainly an ironic development. Kelsey had spent the past few years as a self-appointed watchdog, training a skeptical eye firmly on Miami Beach City Hall, decrying what he often saw as downright cluelessness when it came to supporting small-business operators. For example, gay tourism had been instrumental in transforming South Beach from a crackhouse-infested slum to the American Riviera, he argued. But now, thanks to an overemphasis on attracting bland corporate chains, Fort Lauderdale was siphoning off the gay crowd while the Beach was becoming Where the Boys Aren't.

Kelsey would stop virtually any journalist who'd listen, even cornering Kulchur as he stood in a video-store checkout line one evening. "Did you know we've doubled the number of employees at city hall since 1990, while the city's population has actually decreased?" he noted intently. "What does that tell you about the out-of-control bureaucracy here?" Kulchur nodded gravely, assuring Kelsey he'd look into the troubling situation right away, while gamely trying to hide a rental copy of The Bad News Bears.

Now, as the October meeting of the nightlife task force was about to begin, Kelsey had garnered his desired media attention -- and then some.  

Despite the pack of reporters present, the meeting itself was anticlimactic, enlivened only by some preliminary drama as Kulchur entered the room a few minutes late, nearly colliding with Maggie Fernandez, the Beach's special-events coordinator. She was clutching a stack of photocopied meeting agendas, but at Kulchur's request for one, began slowly backing away. "I'll give you one in a minute," she sputtered, then bolted out the door and down the hall.

Flashing on Woodward and Bernstein (or at least The Bad News Bears' dogged base-running scenes), Kulchur gave chase, bursting into a back office. There stood city manager chief-of-staff Ramiro Inguanzo, meticulously tearing a single page from each of Fernandez's packets. "I think the media already has it," Fernandez warned him, a cryptic statement punctuated by Kulchur's sudden appearance. Inguanzo froze, eyes bugging out, then meekly handed over the top-secret document.

But this was hardly a Watergate in the making. The offending page was simply a September memo from Kelsey to Lazes pledging NITF support for his festival ideas. Harmless enough, yet in the midst of the current media hysteria, it was something Inguanzo obviously felt would only further feed the controversy. And as much as Kulchur enjoys sprinting around city hall's fourth floor, it would be nice to do so in the service of a matter more substantial than a media-manufactured tempest.

In the end, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez refereed the meeting, delivering a public chastisement of Kelsey, saluting both the presence and the vague Memorial Day plans of rapper and promoter Luther Campbell, and then issuing a mea culpa: "I can't condone the history of Miami Beach, I can't apologize for the history of Miami Beach," but in no way would his administration be exclusionary.

One Community Relations Board member stepped up, detecting blood in the water (or perhaps a reason to justify his board's budget) and snarkily asked Kelsey to repudiate his oh-so-notorious quote. Gonzalez quickly cut in: "I don't think an interrogation of David is appropriate here." And that was it. The press corps dutifully shuffled out to file their reports -- notably omitting the fact that they themselves were the actual story.

If journalists want some true insight into how race plays out in the Beach's business community, they need look no further than developer Don Peebles and his Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort. Nearly a decade after the city purchased and provided a couple of coveted beachfront parcels and Art Deco buildings, and then kicked in a ten-million-dollar loan for Peebles to refurbish them as the nation's first African-American-owned convention hotel complex -- the key to ending a three-year black tourist boycott of Miami Beach -- the Royal Palm finally opened to more recrimination than cheers. City officials were taken aback when Peebles not only demanded a drastic reduction in the amount he owed on the loan but also withheld $600,000 in rent on his new complex. For his part, Peebles charged the city with negotiating in bad faith. Underlying the exchange was the threat of costly litigation and, even more critically, damaging publicity from a lawsuit with racial undertones.

Several Beach commissioners quietly fumed at what many considered a thinly veiled shakedown. However, in an atmosphere where cityemployees literally run in fear from reporters when race is invoked, a "compromise" was inevitable. The end result? Peebles is being allowed to convert part of his resort into condos for sale on the open market.

Just what the addition of more expensive South Beach condos does for black tourism -- let alone the struggle for racial justice -- remains a mystery. Anyone expecting Peebles to provide low-rate financing for black buyers of his condominiums shouldn't hold his breath.

But then the real color line in today's Miami Beach isn't black or white. It's green -- the almighty dollar. And the sight of a canny real-estate developer forcing a project through city hall, by any means necessary, should be a familiar story to long-time observers.

As for David Kelsey, you can still find him on his bicycle, cutting a charmingly nebbish profile as he pedals from one city meeting to the next. And though Kulchur may not agree with all his proposals (Beach residents need a monorail tearing up Alton Road about as much as they need a hole in the head -- or another sushi bar), it's comforting to know he's out there in search of civic perfidy.

After the October NITF meeting, Kulchur grabbed hold of Kelsey's wrists and stared intently at his palms. Your crucifixion holes seem to have healed nicely. Are you feeling any pain?

"No, no, I'm okay," Kelsey replied with a weak smile.  


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