A new label to revive Coconut Grove? It could become a ‘Nearby Republic’

01/31/2014 11:41 AM

02/02/2014 5:21 PM

The independent streak, dormant for years, has resurfaced.

Business leaders in Miami’s Coconut Grove, taking a cue from forefathers who have tried repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — to secede from the city, want to change the neighborhood’s name.

The plan, which fomented after an expensive marketing campaign and with resolution from Grove business district leaders, involves changing signs around town, specifically the 18 or so blue welcome signs that hang at Grove entrances.

They new signs would read: “Welcome to the Nearby Republic of Coconut Grove Est. 1873.”

“The idea is to show the Grove is changing, that it has its own vibe,” said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who lives in the Center Grove and is a board member of Coconut Grove’s Business Improvement District. “But I think it’s controversial.”

Change is not for everyone. Nathan Kurland, a Realtor who lives in the Grove and is a member of the Bayfront Park Mangement Trust, wants to leave the name alone.

“I don’t see the necessity of rebranding the village of Coconut Grove. This is who we are,” Kurland said. “Personally, I like The Kingdom of Coconut Grove, better.”

The rebranding push, which is expected to go public in the next few weeks, is an effort by Grove business leaders to bring excitement back to one of the city’s oldest and most popular neighborhoods, a waterfront community with a Bohemian past that at its apex was home to world-renowned musicians and artists.

Since the heydey of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the crowds of visitors have declined and many businesses have suffered, even as home prices skyrocketed. The masses who used to fill Peacock Park, and fill the taverns that dotted Main Highway, have moved on to Miami Beach, Wynwood and Midtown Miami.

Grove business leaders such as H.H. Bredemeier, who grew up in the Grove and has run a jewelry business there for three decades, want some of the old magic back.

“The Grove has been a little stale for a while. We want some of our sexy back,” said Bredemeier, a member of the marketing arm of the Coconut Grove Business Improvement District, which is running the campaign.

The BID was created a few years back to make the Grove more attractive. It markets the neighborhood, and does storefront and sidewalk improvements. Its $1 million-plus budget comes from a series of city fees such as parking surcharges, assessments, and sidewalk cafe fees.

BID leaders hired the marketing firm Markham Unlimited to work on the branding. While not all members are on board with the Nearby Republic theme, enough of them are to push it forward.

The Grove’s rebranding campaign would not only include signs, the BID’s website would be updated, modern commercials explaining the virtues of The Nearby Republic of Coconut Grove would stream on the Internet. Newsletters and magazines would shout the Grove’s new moniker.

The cover of the BID’s annual report, which is expected to be released in the next few weeks, is rustic orange, a bright but fading sun in the upper right corner shining its light on sailboats in Biscayne Bay. In white lettering in the center of the picture: The Nearby Republic of Coconut Grove Est. 1873.

Early settlers called the neighborhood Coco anut Grove, because that’s how Dr. Horace P. Porter spelled it when he opened the village’s first post office. When the city incorportated 23 years later, the letter a was removed. Even today, some old-timers still refer to it as Cocoanut Grove.

The Grove, it seems, was established 23 years before Miami even became a city. And that’s the point, Bredemeier said.

“Charleston plays heavy on its history; we don’t,” he said.

OK, so it’s not quite secession — but it is an exhibit of the independent streak that has given Coconut Grove and its 26,000 residents headlines in past years.

The streak began almost 90 years ago when the neighborhoods of Buena Vista, Allapattah, Silver Bluff, Lemon City and Coconut Grove voted to join the city of Miami. Only Coconut Grove residents voted no. However, there were enough votes in the rest of the city to allow for the Grove’s annexation.

Several times since then attempts by Grove residents to secede have failed, including a 1992 effort that was blocked by Miami-Dade County commissioners from going to the ballot.

Five years later, Grove residents successfully mounted an effort for a vote to rid Miami of its boundaries, a move that would have unincorporated the city. The vote failed, but Grovites, as they are known, proved their point.

“Coconut Grove is seen as something set apart,” said land use attorney Tucker Gibbs, whose family began its migration to the Grove in the 1940s during World War II.

The Grove, said Gibbs, is Miami’s oldest neighborhood and was first populated by northerners and Bahamians. Then it got a southern feel before the hippies and musicians and artists of the 1960s took over.

“Coconut Grove has always been somewhat different, black and white, rich and not so rich. It gets its kind of independent streak from that.”

The Grove’s seemingly never-ending secession movement was originally emboldened by the Grove’s even more independent neighbors to the south.

When the U.S. Boarder Patrol set up a blockade in Florida City in 1982, Florida Keys residents were required to show proof of citizenship to enter the mainland. What followed became a landmark advertising campaign for the nation’s southernmost city, whose residents to this day consider themselves members of the Conch Republic.

Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow responded to the Border Patrol measure with a failed argument in federal court in Miami. Not the slightest bit deterred, the mayor stood on the steps of the Miami courthouse telling assembled media that the Florida Keys intends to secede from the union the next day at noon.

He kept his promise a day later, when standing in Key West’s historic Mallory Square, Wardlow proclaimed Key West as an independent nation from this day forward to be known as The Conch Republic.

The name stuck, and has been a keepsake of Florida Keys advertising ever since. Now the Grove is looking for similar appeal.

“Twenty, 30 years ago, we were the only game in town,” Bredemeier said. “We’re just trying to give ourselves a little bit of a fresher look.”

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