In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Maybe Margaritaville beats Hollywood ‘Curse’

Not to descend too deeply into hoodoo, black magic, sorcery, the dark arts, but after 87 years of unholy debacles, “cursed” has come to seem a plausible explanation for a certain five-acre tract on the Hollywood shore.

One grandiose plan after another foundered on the city-owned parking lot known as the Casino property. Civic leaders have sought proposals for resort hotels or touristy “marketplace” complexes or both. Over the years, notable developers have offered up more than 20 packages. None materialized, providing, at least, circumstantial evidence supporting my theory of the Casino curse.

Developers well known for successful projects, like Michael Swerdlow, Don Peebles and Gus Boulis, came to Hollywood beach with plans as big as their egos. All were thwarted. Boulis had just left a meeting over his own collapsing plan for the Casino property when he was ambushed by mob assassins.

Hollywood city commissioners ought to be considering bids from exorcists, witch doctors and voodoo priests to sanctify the swath between Michigan and Johnson streets. Instead, on Wednesday, the commission voted to give yet another developer a chance to overcome the hex.

This latest proposal would fill the unlucky space with something called the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. The name comes from the ubiquitous bar song and corporate empire of Jimmy Buffett (who, incidentally, exorcised the infamous “Curse of the Bambino!” during a concert at Fenway Park in 2004, allowing Boston to finally win a World Series two months later). Buffett’s not-very-laid-back beach shack will cost $147 million. That is, if Jimmy and his partners don’t suffer the fate of so many of their predecessors. The Margaritaville developers have already missed an April deadline to procure a financing package. The city agreed Wednesday to give them until July 9 to begin construction before cosigning yet another plan to oblivion.

Back in 1925, Hollywood founder Joseph Young completed a wildly ambitious, very expensive swimming and entertainment complex on this same site, with an Olympic-sized saltwater swimming pool, baby pools, 80 shower baths, diving towers and a shopping arcade.

It was beautiful. For about a year. The Casino was smashed by the tidal surge during the 1926 hurricane. Young was bankrupted. His damaged swimming and shopping complex was never restored to its original majesty.

Thirty years later, the city demolished the pool and converted the building into a kind of shabby beachside shopping center. In 1982, the city decided the old Casino structure should give way to something grander. A year later, the city had two proposals for hotels, which were merged into a single, not very exciting pitch for a Holiday Inn. And not the catalyst for a beachfront renaissance the commissioners wanted.

The city ordered studies and master plans and five years later three more proposals were on the table — two for fancy shopping-entertainment operations, meant to emulate Miami’s Bayside Marketplace; another with all that and a 14-story hotel.

The city went with the hotel scheme. Then the Casino curse struck. When the city police chief ran a background check on the winning bidder, he discovered the Casino property’s latest savior was a convicted stack swindler with organized crime connections.

More studies. More proposals. On July 29, 1994, The Miami Herald wrote that the time, surely, had finally come. “This could be the final season for beer, T-shirts and French newspapers in Hollywood’s Casino shops, the 50-year-old oceanfront landmark that city planners see as the key to beach redevelopment. For more than a decade, developers have talked about turning the city-owned land at Johnson Street and the Broadwalk into hotels, parks or tourist malls like Miami’s Bayside Marketplace.

“The process starts again today when city commissioners receive a study calling for a new hotel, retail complex and/or parking to replace the Casino shops.”

Except that the developer picked to build the project failed to come up with either a detailed building plan or a convincing financing package.

On April 30, 1996, The Herald wrote, “After more than 15 years of trying, Hollywood city commissioners hope they are finally going to succeed in luring a developer to take over the Casino property at Johnson Street and the Broadwalk.” The city sent out invitations to potential investors in 275 sand pails, complete with sunglasses and suntan lotion. Good for warding off sunburn, maybe, but not black magic.

The city sorted through the best five proposals and settled on the “Diamond on the Beach” concept from Boulis, who promised he would build a 14-story hotel and 82,000 square feet of retail space on that jinxed real estate. Not even Boulis, founder of the Miami Subs Grill chain, the Sun Cruz casino boat fleet and builder of restaurants and resort hotels across South Florida, could beat the curse.

After signing the lease for the Casino property, Boulis’ marriage dissolved, feds raided his headquarters, the U.S. attorney forced him to get out of the casino boat business and pay a $2 million fine. The fellow to whom he sold his gambling boats failed to come up with the money. And, of course, Boulis was gunned down moments after a meeting about his dashed plans to build the Diamond on the Beach.

All the city got out of the Boulis deal was a lawsuit and a tussle with Peebles, another audacious developer, who tried, futilely, to take over the project.

Meanwhile, the folks down at City Hall supposed that if they could tear down the old Casino building and chase out the 18 mom-and-pop businesses, it would make the property seem more enticing; hurry things along. “We had been paying rent to the city for years,” remembered Michael Dahan, whose family had five clothing stores operating in the Casino. “The city decided they would rather have grass.”

“All the tenants were upset. I was doing a good business there,” former shop owner Edmond Sutton told me. Dahan and Sutton both talked Friday about how the rush to evict the city’s rent-paying tenants and demolish the old building had no discernible effect. The land stayed empty. The curse held.

In 2001, along came Swerdlow with an offer to build a hotel and a fancy swimming complex with a museum, where he’d relocate the International Swimming Hall of Fame from its digs on Fort Lauderdale beach. All Swerdlow wanted in return was for the city to finance the $30 million pool project and condemn other tracts of private property to make way for one of his condo projects. So much for that.

It was then, in a 2001 column, that I first suggested that a curse had become the only plausible explanation for so many failures. More evidence was to come. In 2005, the city picked the 14-story, $70 million Marriott Ocean Village Resort & Spa over three other hefty proposals. Another four years were frittered away before that deal disappeared into the ether.

And now comes the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. That is, if the project can beat both the curse and the July 9 deadline.

Dahan, evicted 15 years ago to make way for ghost projects that never materialized, has his doubts. “I’ll wait until I see the first dump truck.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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