Trouble on the Waterfront

When it comes to developing public waterfront land, the city and county seem to have a knack for screwing things up.

In 1989, California developer Sherman Whitmore snookered city officials into giving him Dinner Key Marina, at 2640 S. Bayshore Dr. It turned out Whitmore was dead broke, and he never paid the city its $33,750 monthly rent.

When the city revisited the project in 1997, it chose a company called Grove Harbour even though a competitor had offered $4.4 million more for the land.

In 2001, voters approved a project on Watson Island that will include a mall and a marina, but to date, the developer hasn't been able to secure financing to begin construction.

Now a proposal to build a dry dock storage facility at Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables is creating controversy before it even gets off the ground. A selection committee of county employees recently selected Aqua Marine Partners to construct and maintain the facility, which will be open to the public. Aqua Marine offered to pay the county $6.2 million over the life of the 30-year contract.

But rival firm Gables Harbour Marina LLC is questioning Aqua Marine's ability to finance the project. In a letter to County Manager George Burgess, Gables Harbour attorney Santiago Echemendia claims Aqua Marine failed to inform the county about lawsuits against the company.

Last year, Ohio-based Key Bank sued Passport Marine, a company in which Aqua Marine was a minority shareholder, for $18 million. Key Bank accuses Passport Marine of failing to pay back a line of credit.

"This is of particular concern since it raises questions about Aqua Marine's ability to fund the Matheson Hammock project," Echemendia says.

Aqua Marine lawyer Jerry Proctor disputes Echemendia's take. "That litigation involved a third-party corporation in which Aqua Marine was merely a shareholder," Proctor says, "and is in no way relevant to my client's performance."

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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.