An environmental protest that organizers said would draw thousands to Virginia Key in opposition to the Miami International Boat Show’s move to historic Marine Stadium mostly flopped Saturday, with only a few dozen people showing up to waive banners and holler at bicyclists and drivers passing along the Rickenbacker Causeway.
It was a disappointing turnout for organizers, and may have actually undercut claims that the vast scope of the Boat Show’s Presidents Day weekend event has prompted intense opposition. Bold predictions about the size of the gathering were advertised by Schwartz Media Strategies, a public relations firm hired by the Village of Key Biscayne, which is suing the city and trade organization behind the Boat Show.
“I don't think that there is opposition to the Boat Show, I really don't, other than the leadership in Key Biscayne,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said Saturday afternoon.
Despite Key Biscayne’s involvement, Saturday’s event was hosted by a coalition of environmental groups, who ended the afternoon by planting native trees on the island. Organizers blamed low attendance on Tropical Storm Erika, and said they had received a high number of RSVPs. They believed they got their point across, regardless of the size of the event.
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“The Boat Show does not belong here,” Steven Leidner, a member of several environmental organizations involved in Saturday’s protest, told the small group who arrived early enough to hear his pre-protest speech. “Neither does developing this area for commercial purposes.”
For months, contractors hired by the city of Miami have been working around the stadium on an $18 million project to create a utility-lined event space and park. The Boat Show’s parent company is seeking permits to allow it to exhibit 1,500 boats, including about 500 in the water over President’s Day weekend.
The event is supposed to draw 100,000 people to an area not far from the sensitive Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlife Area. Executives with the National Marine Manufacturers Association say they’re being sensitive to the environment on Virginia Key.
“We have been working with all relevant environmental regulatory agencies to ensure that any sea life in the area is not harmed and we comply with all requirements,” Cathy Rick-Joule, director of the Miami International Boat Show, said in a statement.
But some are skeptical of the project, particularly after city contractors were caught inadvertently cutting down mangroves near the stadium in May. They say other sensitive resources in the area are put at risk by the city’s plans, including protected sea grasses and manatees, and have called for a scaled-back version of the trade show.
The Boat Show disputes those concerns, and is still applying for environmental permits. Last week, Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to host a public hearing to allow community input before issuing a permit.