Long-time South Floridians may think of Al Dotson Jr. as the son of Miami business and civic leader Al Dotson, the first black chair of the Orange Bowl Committee and a past chair of the board of Florida International University.
Many of the region’s younger influencers may not know the father at all. To them, the junior is a sharp legal mind and civic leader in his own right. A partner and executive-committee member of Miami-based Bilzin Sumberg, Dotson Jr. leads the 100-lawyer firm’s government relations and land development practice. For clients, that means far more than dotting fine legal points; it includes strategic development and negotiation.
Several of his clients are involved in public-private partnerships, including Odebrecht USA, developer of Airport City at Miami International; Wexford Science & Technology, developer of UM’s Life Sciences & Technology Park, and South Beach ACE, which recently won the contract for the new Miami Beach Convention Center.
We querried him about business, civic engagement and Miami’s future.
You went to Dartmouth and Vanderbilt. Why did you come back to Miami to work instead of going someplace that’s typically considered more fertile for black professionals, like Atlanta?
When I was making a decision about where I wanted to live and practice, Miami quickly became my first choice. As a relatively young city of global importance, Miami offered the most opportunity for growth. While Miami lacked the social infrastructure of an Altanta, D.C., N.Y. or L.A., the Miami of the late 1980s offered a clear path to having a significant impact on the community even as a young transplant from another city.
Your dad, Al Dotson, is well known in Miami civic and business quarters. How has that been a plus, and how has it been a drawback?
I was born in Detroit and grew up in Chicago and Atlanta until we moved to Miami in 1976. In each city, I saw my father differentiate himself with his business acumen and distinguish himself through his civic leadership. As his son, I decided to continue his work to create a less obstructed path than the one I traveled to the benefit of my children, nieces, nephews and mentees. Some people may expect certain things from me because of who my father was and I welcome those expectations. I am proud to have a father in whose wake I can travel.
You’ve been living and working here a long time. In your view, what have been the most notable changes, both good and bad?
Miami has reinvented itself many times over. We weathered the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and the recent great recession. We survived civil unrest but we still have a long way to go. Equal opportunity, equal access to quality education and healthcare still elude us. We rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and repositioned ourselves beyond the gateway to the Americas. We became a global hub of commercial activity for not only Latin America, but Asia, Europe and Africa. This global repositioning is exciting to watch. Miami has flourished because of immigration from the Caribbean and South America. Yet, the strength of our diversity remains underappreciated.
What are the biggest hurdles to Miami fulfilling its potential as a world-class city?
The need to make Miami more attractive to entrepreneurs and to those at the forefront of innovation. We need to become more competitive in that respect. That said, we are making progress. One example is the Knight Foundation-funded “Endeavor" program, a nonprofit that supports young entrepreneurs with the greatest potential to make a difference in the community. There is a direct link between the success of our K - 12 educational system and our community’s ability to attract businesses in terms of the labor pool available to them. We have to position Miami as the innovation capital of the world so as to attract Miamians back to our community. At the same time, we have to entice some of the world’s brightest citizens by making Miami one of their top preferred places to live, work and, yes, relax.
Your legal practice revolves around land use and real estate development. How did you survive the recession? Now that the economy is looking up, how has the type of work you’re doing changed?
As we worked our way out of the great recession as a community, the land use and real estate practices began to evolve. As lending institutions adjusted their equity and loan coverage requirements, our clients became more innovative. They also diversified their deal flow. For example, some began establishing private-public partnerships with the public sector. We see more of our clients willing to offer private-sector solutions to address public-sector needs. Also, we continue to see more foreign-based companies interested in developing new large scale projects in Miami. Our practice continues to include the traditional land use and real estate development work.
Public-private-partnerships seem to be all the rage these days, from the downtown museums and park to the Miami Beach Convention Center. Why have they grown in popularity? Are they good deal for the public, or do they risk public money? What kind of value / risk do they offer to private developers?
Many municipalities are entering into public-private partnerships, also known as P3s, as a way to preserve their capital while upgrading public infrastructure. P3s also enable businesses to capitalize and enhance the value of existing public assets, as is the case locally with the Interstate-595 reconstruction and the waterfront Museum Park development in downtown Miami. Often, the private partner is the one that does the planning, financing, procurement and construction of a project. By doing that, the private sector, which finances the development, takes the construction and financial risks away from the public sector. That is great for the taxpayer. Also, the private partner, which has the experience and the logistics in place, often gets the job done in a more efficient manner and at a lower cost.
There is an immense amount of P3 activity currently taking place in South Florida. The public and private sectors have come together to undertake some of the nation’s biggest infrastructure improvement projects, such as the Miami International Airport and Port of Miami expansions; the Miami Beach Convention Center redevelopment; the $300M+ rail car deal with Miami-Dade County and Italian-based AnsaldoBreda; the University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park, among others. During the recession, the public and private sectors had no choice but to work together to get projects off the ground. This trend will only continue to grow in popularity, particularly because it is a formula that is proven to work.
The legal profession has been undergoing change, as witnessed in part by recent layoffs at a large New York firm. Has Bilzin Sumberg had layoffs?
Not at all. 2012 was our best year in the firm’s history. We don’t grow by growing offices. When you have the ability to grow across multiple geographies but your overhead is limited by having a single office in Miami, there are economies of scale that can be created. Bilzin Sumberg does considerable cross-border work representing clients in Latin America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East in tax, real estate and corporate matters.
Miami doesn’t seem to have a big black professional class like Atlanta or some other cities. Is that truth, or is it perception? And why?
First, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of Miamians of African descent. Unlike Atlanta, Miami has a robust community of professionals with direct lineage from the Caribbean. Atlanta, on the other hand, with the strength and prominence of Morehouse College, Spelman College and the other higher-education institutions, has successfully attracted some of our nation’s brightest black undergraduate students and created linkages with a strong corporate community. That’s why you see more black professionals occupying corporate and government leadership positions there. Miami must continue an upward trajectory to maximize the competitive advantage we gain through inclusion.
You co-founded the local chapter of 100 Black Men of America. What’s the organization’s purpose? How do you measure success?
I co-founded the South Florida Chapter in 1989. We started a program called Project Success, in which we took middle school students, mentored them and made a commitment to help them be successful throughout their educational journey. Over the years, we’ve had countless mentees come back to express their gratitude for the life lessons, academic training, and guidance that they are now proudly sharing as mentors. Later I became the national chairman and served in that role for eight years. As such, I witnessed and helped influence the growth of dedicated mentoring nationally and abroad. This has been the legacy of 100 Black Men of America. Expanding to 118 chapters with more than 10,000 members, we continue to strive to improve the quality of life in our communities and enhance the economic and educational opportunities for African Americans.
Tell us one thing about you that would surprise your colleagues.
When I was a teenager, I was a ball boy for the Atlanta Hawks—between 1973 and 1976. I was able to collect autographs from some of the greats of that time including: Lou Hudson, Pete Maravich, Walt Bellamy, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. As a result, I am the proud owner of Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s cuffed, velour 1970’s era vintage pants, which he threw out after a game because they didn’t fit. I have those pants in a frame in my house today. Being around those athletes was an amazing experience because many of the players took the time to mentor me while I was playing high school basketball.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There is a palpable level of excitement in the air as Miami enters its next real estate cycle, and as the City as a whole evolves into a global destination. Late last year, our firm conducted a "New Miami Investment Survey," which polled more than 200 of Miami’s leading business executives and found that roughly 60% believe that Miami’s economy is growing. About the same number believe that its financing environment is also improving. Much of this growth is coming from Latin America, as well as other parts of the globe that see Miami as an attractive place in which to invest. That’s something to build on.