Facing serious money problems, the storied Miami Woman’s Club may lease out its historic, shuttered clubhouse for the next century in order to revive the building and rescue one of Miami’s longest-standing social organizations from financial turmoil.
Club members are set to meet and vote Wednesday on a 90-year agreement with the Heafey Group, a Canadian real estate investment company that includes the adjacent DoubleTree hotel in its holdings. They’ll consider a lease that would give Heafey control over the club’s waterfront headquarters, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and lies in a rapidly redeveloping neighborhood.
Heafey, according to a consultant who worked on the deal, wants to sublease the building’s bottom two floors to a “high-quality” restaurant, and would utilize a ballroom in the building as an amenity for the hotel next door. An outdoor patio space would be used as well.
The proposed lease comes at a crucial time for the club, which was founded in 1900 and established Miami-Dade County’s public library system. The club is facing a $350,000 judgment due at the end of the month, and to avoid years of substantial back-taxes must reclaim its revoked non-profit status. A decade ago, after an art university that occupied the Mediterranean Revival-style for three decades left it badly damaged, the Woman’s Club began a publicly-funded, multimillion-dollar renovation project only to run out of money with the clubhouse still an empty shell.
If the club approves the lease, Woman’s Club attorney Tom Korge said Heafey will finish renovations to the building and the club will retain space on two of five floors. Heafey has already issued a no-strings-attached loan to pay for the judgment, which stems from a dispute with a contractor who performed renovation work, he said.
Korge said club members would retain control over whether any development would proceed on vacant areas on the property around the historic clubhouse, but it doesn’t appear that there’s any interest in pursuing new construction — at least at the moment.
“It’s a good lease. Its important to the community, and it’s important to the Woman’s Club to get this building renovated completely. It’s going to be $8- or $9 million, and Heafey is going to pay for that,” said Korge, who says the Club vetted potential partners and the lease for months. “It’s a long-term lease of very valuable and important property. It’s just something you’ve got to do right.”
By all accounts, the members of the Woman’s Club agree with Korge on that last point. They just don’t all agree that the club is indeed handling the Heafey lease with transparency.
Victoria Brieant, an attorney representing seven current and former club members, said her clients have been attempting to review financial and membership documents for months without success. She said the club’s leadership — headed by Noreen Timoney, wife of former Miami Police Chief John Timoney — has mismanaged its finances and held an inordinate amount of control over decisions and information.
Furthering skepticism, Heafey’s holdings include the next door Grand condominium, where Timoney lives. Also, Brieant says one client was booted out of the club after voicing her displeasure with the Heafey lease, with what she called a dubious explanation that her membership dues were never paid.
“If you’re running a fair game, you wouldn’t do this,” Brieant said. “It’s the appearance of trying to manage this process to give a favorable lease to a preferred member that concerns my clients. Maybe it’s only appearance, but appearance matters.”
Heafey representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Timoney deferred to Edgar Jones, one of two consultants who helped negotiate the pending lease with Heafey.
Korge said the lease is a good deal, and one that was negotiated among competition. He said Avra Jain, the developer who restored the Vagabond to much acclaim, was among the interested partners turned away. He said Related Group also had interest recently, but couldn’t offer a deal as valuable and attractive as Heafey.
Jones, the consultant, said Wednesday’s vote will hopefully get the Woman’s Club back on its feet by cementing a good contract.
“I could care less who gets it. I don’t have a dog in this fight at all nor do I want to ruin my reputation recommending something I think is a sham,” said Jones. “This is a very comfortable solution for the club, with a great partner. They’re reactivating a building that’s been in disarray for way too many years.”