Beating Whitey

On a Thursday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, real estate developer R. Donahue Peebles sat at his desk in the Coral Gables office of his firm, Peebles Atlantic Development Corp. Linen drapes softened the sunlight entering his spacious windows, but obscured the view of the lush green skyline. "Don," as most people know him, was his usual self: charming, affable, and brazenly outspoken.

Leaning back in his chair, a wily smile on his face, Peebles boasted about how he'd started his company from zero and built it into a business with a $300 million real estate portfolio at the tender age of 42. "One thing I have a reputation for is this -- I'm willing to fight for what I believe in and what I want," Peebles said. His baby-brown eyes were unflinching. "You don't get where I am by being passive. You don't get where I am by being a quitter.... You fight."

And since he set foot on Miami Beach in 1995, Don has been engaged in an eight-year-long bare-knuckle brawl with his former business partners, city bureaucrats, and politicians in his quest to build the now-open Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort, the nation's first black-owned convention hotel, nestled on Fifteenth Street at Collins Avenue. Miami black leaders wanted their own Stephen Muss, and initially at least Miami Beach white leaders agreed. The problem, though, as the man said, is that you must be careful of what you wish for. And the race issue complicated matters even more, because Peebles is so adept at exploiting it, maddeningly telling home truths about accepted "white" practices that he gets blasted for following ...

The Royal Palm project was born of a 1993 compromise between Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach elected officials, tourism boosters, and local black activists that ended a local black tourism/business boycott being supported by doers and shakers around the nation. The thousand-day boycott began after county and City of Miami officials, under pressure from conservative Hispanic political leaders, snubbed anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela in 1990 for lauding Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. The effects of the boycott were horrendous for the Beach and the county, costing the community an estimated $55 million in lost tourism revenue, and so city officials issued a call for a competitive bid in 1995 for a black developer to renovate and operate a hotel aimed primarily at the conventioneer business. As reparations.

Miraculously, in 1996 they gave Don the rights to the project, over Eugene Jackson, founder of Atlanta-based Unity Broadcasting Network, who was partnered with the Hyatt Corporation. In addition the city fronted Peebles a ten-million-dollar loan to buy the Royal Palm and Shorecrest hotels, two historical Art Deco properties that make up the Crowne Plaza resort.

Since then Peebles has allegedly edged his D.C.-based business partners Jeffrey E. Thompson and Cecile Barker out of the deal, blamed everyone but himself for the four-year delay and millions in cost overruns on the Royal Palm, allegedly refused to pay his contractors for completed work, and -- after the year 2000 -- refused to come up with any further lease payments to the City of Miami Beach until he gets a new deal on the $80 million project.

Since Don blames the city for the problems -- he says officials never informed him about the extent of structural problems at the Royal Palm, or of the petroleum-contaminated soil there -- he isn't responsible for $15.8 million in construction delays and additional costs. Consequently Peebles wants them to allow him to sell the smaller Shorecrest as a time-share condominium; this would place the asking price on the 150 rooms in question at about $330,000 each. At those prices, Don could pay the city back the $4.5 million used to purchase the Shorecrest, cover the additional "problem," and make a little profit into the bargain ...

"I am a hard-nosed businessman, and I'm not really going to take any bullshit from people just to get along," Don continued, recalling his public spat with former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin (whom Peebles accuses of double-crossing him): "If I feel I've been wronged, or that I am not being treated fairly, then I'm going to fight back."

"When you are not in favor of his agenda, rightfully or wrongfully so, Don goes on the attack," Kasdin affirmed.

And since what Don does is no different from what other real estate developers have done since the arrival of South Florida pioneers Carl Fisher, Henry Flagler, and the descendants of Hamilton Disston, early in the Twentieth Century, it's increasingly hard to find fault with him. He's just "working the system" to push through lucrative real estate deals. The only difference is that Peebles is shameless in admitting that he works within a corrupt system to achieve his goals, and that whites are slower to openly criticize him for fear of being called prejudiced.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.