For the past two weeks South Beach sun worshippers have had to enjoy the surf and sand the way the early settlers did -- without colorfully striped umbrellas or cushions for the ubiquitous wooden lounge chairs on the sand. Comfort and shade turned to sodden ashes June 18, when a fire destroyed six trailers containing the umbrellas and pads, which are normally rented to tourists by Beachsports International.
"We are positive it was arson," says Vance Irick, fire investigator for the Miami Beach Fire Department. "Someone went there with the purpose of burning those trailers, and they did a very good job."
The half-dozen trailers were lined up behind the Tenth Street lifeguard station, just off Ocean Drive. They held more than 2700 pads for Beachsports International's wooden lounge chairs, which are permanently strewn along the beach. The company rents the cushions for three dollars per day; a double pad costs five dollars. Between 50 and 100 beach umbrellas, which rent for four dollars per day, were also destroyed. Constructed simply of steel frames and plywood walls, the trailers and their contents burned quickly, lighting up the late-night sky. No one was injured in the blaze.
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Jim Brown, vice-president of Beachsports, fears the 2:00 a.m. fire will end up costing the company nearly $100,000 in lost property and revenue. None of the trailers or their contents were insured. "It was a big hit," Brown says, explaining that the company lost nearly 90 percent of its total stock of cushions. As the busy Fourth of July weekend approaches, several local factories are working around the clock to make 3000 new pads. This time, Brown vows, the pads will be insured and a security guard will be paid to watch the trailers at night.
Beachsports International stormed Miami Beach in 1990, as Brown and two partners quickly dominated a surfside lounge chair business that hitherto had been scattered and disorganized. With corporate muscle and savvy tactics, the company gained control of the lounge chair and umbrella concession from the southern tip of Miami Beach to 15th Street. Beachsports also negotiated contracts with hoteliers further up the beach.
Although the smaller outfits that border Beachsports' territory complained they were being squeezed out by what they perceive as a monopoly, Brown is certain that business disagreements couldn't have had anything to do with the fire. He believes vandals were responsible. "I don't know anyone who would want to burn up my pads," he says. "I don't have a clue. It was totally unexpected. However, we are surviving it. We are here to stay."
Vance Irick, the city's arson specialist, won't say if his investigation has led to any suspects, but he doubts vagrants were involved. "Vagrants try to stay low key," Irick says. "They don't like to call attention to themselves. There would be no reason for them to start this fire.