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Virginia Key Developers Pose as "Grassroots" Activists Online as Marina Vote Looms Today

Today the Miami City Commission will finally decide whether to allow the RCI Group, a prominent development firm based in Miami Beach, to raze Miami's historic marina on Virginia Key and build a gleaming, $100 million facility, complete with shops, restaurants, and a robotic boat-storage arm. But local activists say they don't want a fancy, South Beach-style marina on what has historically been a quiet, lazy stretch of beach.

Ahead of the vote, it appears the two main groups bickering for control of the project — RCI and Dallas-based group Suntex — have been posing as fake grassroots activists on Facebook to covertly attack each other.

Both pages appear to be examples of "astroturfing," or pretending that corporate PR actually comes from "grassroots" organizers.

One page, called the Virginia Key Coalition, claims to be a group of "local residents committed to protecting Virginia Key’s natural resources." The organization has gone as far as creating a TV commercial attacking RCI's development plan and accuses RCI of causing a sewage spill in Miami Beach in 2000.

The other, dubbed the "Save the Virginia Key Marina Project," fervently supports RCI's proposal and accuses the Virginia Key Coalition of being a "fictitious smear campaign" against RCI on behalf of rival developer Suntex "in order to get the City of Miami to throw out the bid."

The anti-RCI Coalition's TV ad has been viewed more than 26,000 times. The Save the Virginia Key Marina Project, meanwhile, has 918 Facebook likes.

But, in fact, it appears that both pages are fronts for the developers. The real activists working to educate the public about the development say the groups are misleading the community. 

"I've been involved with real coalitions of grassroots groups," Blanca Mesa, a former Miami Herald reporter who now works as an environmental activist, tells New Times. "These only look like they're grassroots." 

Brian May, a representative for RCI, confirms to New Times that the second, pro-RCI page was actually created by RCI itself.

"That’s us," he says. "We openly say, on our Facebook page, that we're 'working with the RCI Group.' We’re being open about it."

The other group, meanwhile, appears to have been set up by a shell company called the Foundation for a Safe Environment, Inc., which is run by Tallahassee lobbyist Richard E. Coates. He appears to have ties to state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who is also working as an attorney for Suntex.

Coates did not respond to a call from New Times. We were not able to confirm who actually runs the page.

But Suntex has also hired local public-relations magnate Seth Gordon and Miami Beach lobbyist Fernando Diez to help win over the city commission. May, RCI's lobbyist, accuses Gordon and Diez of starting the Facebook fight by trying to run a dirty-tricks campaign.

"They made this very slick video," May says. "But they put out all this information that was severely misleading and made it so you couldn’t tell who was really behind the group."

Via email, Gordon denied he'd had a hand in creating the Virginia Key Coalition page.

"I know about it," he said, "but had nothing to do with setting it up. Miami is a small town, and anyone involved in the political process knows... or think they know [sic]... about what other people are doing."

He then added, "FYI: 'smear campaign' is a very loaded, pejorative term. A more reasonable term might be 'speaking the truth.'"

(It's worth noting that one commenter on the coalition page did say he was supporting the page "for Seth.")

After preliminarily awarding a development contract to RCI, the city commission will hold a special meeting today to decide whether RCI can keep its contract or the city should basically start the bidding process over again.

Even more than most South Florida land-development deals, the marina redevelopment has been controversial: Not only have developers on both sides accused one another of corruption and executing "backroom deals" to get the redevelopment rights, local activists say they don't event want a South Beach-style marina on what is an otherwise peaceful stretch of land.

Mesa, who runs her own Facebook page dedicated to conserving Virginia Key, says she was flummoxed when she noticed the two new "grassroots" groups springing up basically overnight. She warned local residents to avoid getting information from either page because, she says, neither RCI nor Suntex has the community's best interests at heart.

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"It would be amusing if there wasn't so much at stake," she says. "Our interest is in keeping this public area and preserving the natural area. We just want to make sure public understands what the facts are."

This isn't the first time RCI has been involved in a somewhat shady land deal: The group was one of the principal investors in a recently failed bid to redevelop Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar boating complex.

Asked why RCI would combat one fake-grassroots movement with another, May did not seem fazed.

"Well, we do really believe that the project needs to be saved," he said.

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