Some of the biggest spenders in Bal Harbour lately aren’t shoppers at high-end retail stores in the tiny village’s namesake mall.
They are the owners of the mall itself, and they hope their haul is a two-vote swing on the Village Council to tip the balance in favor of a controversial $400 million expansion that would nearly double the size of the upscale shopping mall.
The Whitman family, which owns the Bal Harbour Shops, has given two candidates who support the mall’s expansion plans tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Both candidates are challenging incumbents — Mayor Martin Packer, who has opposed the expansion plans, and Jaime Sanz, who recuses himself from the conversation because he works as a manager for one of the Shops’ largest tenants, Neiman Marcus.
The two candidates backed by the Shops, political newcomers Jeffrey Freimark and David Albaum, have stated they would have wanted to see the expansion plans sent to the public for a referendum this year — an option rejected by the council in April.
$200,000 Approximate amount spent by Whitman family and associates on Bal Harbour election
The Whitman family appears to be banking on a political shakeup before trying to push any plans forward. The family and its associates have spent more than $200,000 on the campaign, directly and through political action committees.
Freimark and Albaum’s combined fundraising totals about $89,000, with about half coming from the Whitman family and entities affiliated with the shops. The figure far outstrips the amounts raised by Packer, about $26,000, and Sanz, about $1,600.
Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and CEO of Whitman Family Development, said in a statement that his family has made no secret of its support for Freimark and Albaum.
“We have been very transparent and consistent about our support for these candidates,” he said. “They both have very strong professional and civic credentials, and have laid out clear plans on a range of important village issues — including traffic, sea-level rise, and the future of the business district.”
Albaum, a retired controller and chief financial officer in the public and private sector, told the Miami Herald that although he appreciated the Whitmans’ support, he insisted he will evaluate any proposal for expansion with an open mind and hasn’t committed to voting in favor.
I have no allegiance to them. Although I’m in favor of expansion, I haven’t made any final decisions.
David Albaum, council candidate
“I have no allegiance to them,” he said. “Although I’m in favor of expansion, I haven’t made any final decisions.”
Freimark, president and CEO of Miami Jewish Health Systems, said on Tuesday he believes the matter should go to a public referendum, and if approved, the village should negotiate a deal for a sensible expansion.
“Does that mean they should run ramshod over the village? Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s where compromise comes in. That’s where parties need to come in and negotiate a deal that satisfies all sides.”
The shops and associates have also used political actions committees to influence voters.
One committee, Citizens for Future of Bal Harbour, is led by the shops’ brass and has spent $193,000 this year so far on marketing, political strategy, public relations and legal advice. Another Whitman-led committee, Committee for Bal Harbour’s Future, Inc., has spent about $27,000 on campaign consulting and opposition research, according to finance reports filed with the village clerk.
The Shops have spent more than $200,000 on the two campaigns — a staggering sum in a village with a population of 2,800.
“It’s incredible as far as a small, local village that they have to pour that kind of money into advertising to try and influence the public to be able to control the council,” said Packer, the incumbent mayor.
It’s incredible as far as a small, local village that they have to pour that kind of money into advertising to try and influence the public to be able to control the council.
Martin Packer, incumbent mayor
By contrast, a citizen-run PAC named Bal Harbour is Not For Sale has spent $5,000 on mailers criticizing Albaum and Freimark.
“They are being bought and paid for in a very large and extravagant way by the Shops because they want to own the council,” said 89-year-old Lynne Bloch-Mullen, a 17-year resident and vocal opponent of the expansion plan. She added that she doesn’t completely oppose a larger mall, but she thinks the current vision is too big and will create traffic nightmares.
But the original source of that $5,000 isn’t completely clear. The money came from nonprofit Bal Harbour Citizens Coalition Inc., an organization that has been existed since 2005. Mullen, a board member of the coalition, said the money has been raised from supportive community members. Because the coalition is a nonprofit, the group is not required to disclose the names of those donors.
Plans for expansion have riled up the seaside community this year. The fiery debate was stoked when the Church by the Sea agreed to sell the 1940s structure to the Shops last year and it was demolished soon afterwards to make room for expansion amid public outcry.
The Shops’ proposal also called for the sale and demolition of Village Hall to make room for the expansion, but when the council considered sending the plans to a public referendum, it died after a 2-2 stalemate.
The Shops quickly turned in an alternative plan that was scaled back, but on Monday, the council voted 4-0, with Sanz recusing himself, to reject zoning changes the shopping center needed for its expansion plan. An attorney for the shops argued that the council had placed it on the agenda despite a previous deferral to January and asked the council to withdraw the Monday’s item.
But the village attorney argued that the Shops had already used the one withdrawal the center was entitled to in the village code, and any request to withdraw again would need to be approved by the council. The council did not grant the deferral, and subsequently voted down zoning requests.