Call it a year of homecomings.
In 2018, soccer finally found its Miami home. Wynwood displaced some long-term residents in favor of becoming Miami’s next live-work nexus. Celebrity Cruises sailed in with the industry’s most cutting-edge ship, appropriately called Edge. Amazon considered a Miami address for its new HQ2, foolishly choosing instead two pricier, more tax-burdened and even more clogged locales in the north.
These are just a few of the events that made our 2018 Top Business Stories. We chose them on the basis of impact — both immediate and potential — on this ever-changing region we call home.
Rankings are based on their transformational nature. In David Letterman-style, we’ve listed them in reverse order.
No. 15: On Sept. 7., the Securities and Exchange Commission shocked South Florida when it named longtime Miami philanthropist Phillip Frost (namesake of Miami’s new science museum) and his drug company OPKO Health in a civil securities fraud complaint. Investigators alleged that Frost, OPKO and a group of other South Florida investors took part in a pump-and-dump scheme involving multiple penny stocks.
Longtime stock watchers in recent years observed Frost’s name among a roster of investors who promoted companies whose share prices seemed to pop without warning. Chris Carey, who chronicles unusual trading activity at ShareSleuth.com, noted in July Frost and OPKO were among the largest shareholders in one of the companies, MabVax Therapeutics Holdings. That company is now exploring a sale. Soon after the charges were announced, Frost stepped down as chairman of financial group Ladenburg Thalmann, a position he held for more than a decade. Ladenburg was not named in the suit.
On Dec. 27, Frost and OPKO announced they had settled with the SEC, without admitting or denying the charges. Frost paid a $5 million penalty and agreed to a ban on penny stock trading.
— ROB WILE
No. 14: More than a dozen new cruise ships launched in 2018. Among them were two with stand-out innovative features and South Florida connections, further cementing our supremacy in the $134 billion cruise industry.
Miami-based Celebrity Cruise Line launched its innovative Celebrity Edge, with state-of-the-art features sure to influence future ships across the globe. Edge literally redefines the cruise-ship profile, with a bull-nose bow and a tennis-court-size “magic carpet” that elevates along the ship exterior, enabling it to act as a water-level deck for tenders, mid-level cocktail lounge and upper-deck restaurant. Bonuses include Eden, three-level dinner-and-entertainment space; private lounges for suite guests; and handsome single cabins scattered about the ship. Savvy design touches every aspect of the ship, from cabanas that look like whale’s ribs to four distinctive “main’‘ dining rooms with specialized menus. The ship sails from Fort Lauderdale.
This year, passengers aboard a series of new, 184-passenger luxury expedition yachts from French line Ponant found an industry first: An underwater “Blue Eye” lounge offering flood-lit views beneath the surface and sounds recorded from a series of hydrophones, with vibrations transmitted into the lounge’s couches. Projection screens display previously shot underwater images. The “eye” shaped windows provide best viewing in warm waters; at any time, the space is futuristic and surprisingly meditative. Two Blue Eye ships, Le Laperouse and Le Champlain, already launched in 2018; four more are due in the coming two years. The line’s Americas brand chairman is Miamian Edie Rodriguez.
— JANE WOOLDRIDGE
No. 13: Miami is known as a gateway — but not everything that passes through is clean. In January, the Miami Herald’s “Dirty Gold” series shined a spotlight on how much of the gold shipped through Miami— worth as much as 2 percent of the market value of the vast U.S. stockpile in Fort Knox — may come from illicit South American mines. The gold sales then help fuel the drug trade.
“A large part of the gold that’s commercialized in the world comes stained by blood and human rights abuses,” said Julián Bernardo González, vice president of sustainability for Continental Gold, a Canadian mining company with operations in Colombia that holds legal titles and pays taxes, unlike many smaller mining operations.
By using drug profits to mine and sell gold to American and multinational companies, drug cartels and other criminal organizations can launder “staggering amounts of money,” said John Cassara, a retired U.S. Treasury special agent. The end result: The gold Americans find in everything from jewelry to smartphones is helping finance shipments of narcotics to the United States, as well as illegal mining in Latin America.
The series was sparked in part by the 2017 indictment of officials at a Doral-based gold trader. But it has not stopped there.
“The scope of the conspiracy is enormous,” federal prosecutor Francisco Maderal told a judge during a hearing in Miami last year.
The case could diminish Miami’s central role as an international gold-trading hub; the majority of the precious metal imported into the United States goes through Miami International Airport by South Florida-based dealers.
— ROB WILE
FINALLY, THE LEAP
No. 12: South Florida’s first billion-dollar startup, augmented-reality (AR) platform Magic Leap, took a big step (though not quite a giant leap) in 2018 when it began selling its first product. The roll-out was seven years and more than $2 billion in investment in the making.
The Magic Leap One Creator Edition, which the Plantation-based company began shipping in August, is designed as a platform for developers and companies. They’re able to create AR versions of products including video games, desktop software and music experiences. For instance, Rovio, maker of Angry Birds, created an AR version of the runaway smash game that Business Insider called “possibly the perfect application of Magic Leap’s tech.”
Not all users of the new platform were as impressed, especially given the massive hype — and noticeable delays — surrounding its release. TechCrunch called it a “janky marvel,” while Wired called the company’s demonstrations “interesting” while noting the company has still not broken through to the mainstream.
Meanwhile, the company continued to weather internal and legal turmoil, with a former employee alleging the company violated intellectual property laws. Two high-profile executives, including marketing chief Brenda Freeman (who keynoted the firm’s first development conference), moved into “advisory roles.”
Founder and CEO Rony Abovitz continues to project calm, regularly tweeting out updates about the company’s progress. But the roller-coaster saga is likely to continue in 2019. Magic Leap now employs hundreds of techies in South Florida, many imported from across the country and even the world. Its performance could make or break the area’s reputation as a tech hub.
— ROB WILE
No. 11: Where’s the bottom? Venezuela’s economy continued its spectacular free fall in 2018 with the IMF estimating that inflation hit 2.5 million percent and real GDP fell by 18 percent — both figures are global records.
The economic crisis, driven by falling oil production, draconian price and currency controls, corruption and international sanctions, have led at least 3 million people to flee the country in recent years, and the United Nations expects at least another 2 million to migrate in 2019. Most analysts say President Nicolás Maduro is either unwilling or unable to make the changes needed to steady the economy. Even so, on Jan. 10 he’ll begin a new six-year term.
Though many Venezuelans have already moved money and family to South Florida, the deepening crisis is sure to continue its impact on South Florida in ways that are not yet clear.
— JIM WYSS
COCOWALK GOES OFFICE
No. 10: Coconut Grove, which flourished in the 1990s and 2000s as Miami’s nightlife alternative to Miami Beach, began its transformation into an upscale work-and-live destination for the upwardly mobile.
The new CocoWalk, set to be completed in 2019, will feature an office tower, high-end boutique shops and restaurants, salons, spas and gourmet markets. Only a handful of current tenants will remain.
Alongside it have popped up clothing stores like Bonobos and Warby Parker that cater to the high-end hip. After shopping, you can stop into Belgian boulangerie Le Pain Quotidien, local pour-over specialists Panther Coffee, or a new wine bar.
And then there’s Mr. C, a 100-room boutique hotel designed by local designers Arquitectonica that will boast a rooftop pool, restaurant and cabanas overlooking Peacock Park and Biscayne Bay. At ground level, beneath the elevated hotel, will be a garden courtyard and lobby and bar.
“It’s almost like a club for the neighborhood where people can just stumble in and relax,” designer Bernardo Fort-Brescia said. “There is no place like that in Coconut Grove. It’s a restaurant that happens to have a hotel.”
Some longtime Grovites are groaning. Restaurateur Maurizio Farinelli says, optimistically, that a balance is being struck.
“Some of the residents don’t want anything to change in Coconut Grove. Unfortunately, life changes,” Farinelli said. “This place is going in the right direction. But you don’t want massive amounts of building. If they pay attention to how to develop properly, it can only get better.
“But it has to retain the village feel. That’s the essence of Coconut Grove.”
— ROB WILE
No. 9: The television industry continued to adapt to the era of cord-cutting and streaming — and Spanish-language TV was no exception.
Univision Communications, the largest Spanish-language media company in the U.S., nixed its long-gestating plan for an IPO, put its English-language digital assets (such as Gizmodo Media, which operates The Onion and The Root) up for sale and laid off more than 250 employees, including some well-known on-air talent.
CEO Randy Falco retired early, while new CEO Vince Sadusky announced he would lead Univision back to its “core mission” of serving the U.S. Hispanic community — proof that the company is rethinking some of the strategies that had worked over the past 50 years.
NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, Univision’s chief rival, gained in the ratings and moved into a new $250 million facility in west Miami-Dade, consolidating all its filmed series, live programming and national news shows under one glitzy, state-of-the-art roof.
But Telemundo, too, resorted to layoffs and upper-management changes, including the departure of Luis Silberwasser, who had served as Telemundo president for four years. As Netflix and Amazon gain subscribers and Hollywood film studios plan over-the-top streaming services of their own, Spanish-language TV is also being forced to change with the times and rethink its longstanding practices.
— RENE RODRIGUEZ
No. 8: Miami’s Knight Foundation continued its $128 million streak of investing in Miami cultural endeavors with an additional $37 million for arts groups large and small. Its initial investment paid off in new and enhanced institutions (New World Symphony, Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Perez Art Museum Miami), free educational outreach and a hefty economic impact. Countywide, arts and culture industry spending topped more than $1.4 billion in 2015, accounting for almost 41,000 jobs, according to Americans for the Arts. It has also helped redefine Miami-Dade globally from a fun-and-sun capital to one of creative substance.
On it’s start-up track, Knight announced a $1 million donation to Venture Cafe Miami to expand its outreach to a broader and more diverse community. It also created a Miami Start-up Guide to help local start-ups navigate the local scene.
— JANE WOOLDRIDGE
No. 7: Wynwood’s transformation from an entertainment destination to a live-work borough went into hyper-drive in 2018. Construction on several new apartment and office buildings continued, with some of them — including the first all-micro-unit complex in Miami-Dade — scheduled for completion in 2019.
Moishe Mana continued his plan for a massive trade hub that will connect Asia and Latin America. A London investment firm paid $8.5 million for an assemblage of land that will house Wynwood’s first hotel.
The Italian fashion brand Diesel announced it will bring its first branded luxury condo project to Wynwood, and Facebook, Google and Apple are all reportedly looking at the neighborhood, too.
But all the development took a toll on Wynwood’s hip factor — a perhaps inevitable consequence of gentrification.
O Cinema Wynwood and Wynwood Yard, two entertainment stalwarts that helped fuel the area’s transformation from warehouse district, announced they would permanently close in the spring of 2019, to be replaced by an apartment building.
Electric Pickle, the hipster dance club that opened in Wynwood in 2009, will also close in June 2019 after its current lease expires. The nightspot is being priced out of the neighborhood by a new landlord who paid $2 million for the building in 2013.
Even some of the mural and graffiti artists who put Wynwood on the map with their street art are abandoning the neighborhood for grittier turf such as Overtown, Little Havana and Liberty City.
According to this year’s market report by the Wynwood Business Improvement District, the neighborhood is on track to become a “self-contained office market” by 2020, with a large residential population. But how will that incarnation of Wynwood look and feel?
— RENE RODRIGUEZ
No. 6: In 2013, two Northwestern MBAs transplanted to Miami and began toiling away on an idea: a single, dominant platform for a city’s private parking garages and public lots.
The concept: a one-digital-stop for consumers, landlords and operators.
For nearly five years, founders Ari Ojalvo and Umut Tekin toiled in relative obscurity, lining up the Miami Heat, Port Miami, Manhattan’s cruise terminal and nearby Cape Liberty cruise terminal, and perfecting ParkJockey.
Their heads-down approach paid off: In December, ParkJockey was partially acquired by tech conglomerate SoftBank Group, which simultaneously purchased two of the largest parking companies in North America — Vancouver-based Impark and New York-based Citizens Parking Inc. — and folded them under ParkJockey’s umbrella.
In a stroke, ParkJockey became valued at more than $1 billion — a “unicorn” in tech-speak, and Miami-Dade’s first. The company does have plans to hire. The transaction showed that a Miami company can scale up in a big way.
— ROB WILE
No. 5: After two years of extensive lobbying, negotiations and closed-door maneuvering, Canadian-based developer Triple Five convinced Miami-Dade officials to green light the largest mall in America.
Plans for the American Dream Miami retail theme park call for a 5 million-square-foot project with hotel, an indoor ski run, an ice-climbing wall and a water park. Triple Five says the project will create 14,000 jobs. Tab: $4 billion.
Critics have railed against the project’s environmental impact — it is slated for construction on a low-lying area not far from the Everglades off the Florida Turnpike. In addition, many of the jobs created are expected to be hourly ones with low pay. Before it moves forward, the project must clear additional regulatory hurdles. Millions of dollars of roadway and infrastructure improvements will be needed; some of those will be paid for by taxpayers.
But the project has the backing of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who hailed it as “the biggest project we’ve ever had in Miami-Dade County.” Triple Five predicts the mall will attract 30 million visitors annually, translating into more than $200 million in additional county revenues.
— ROB WILE
No. 4: In January, to the surprise of some — but not to local boosters — South Florida was chosen as one of 20 regional finalists as the destination for Amazon’s HQ2 project, slated to bring 50,000 jobs and billions in investment with creation of a second headquarters outside its Seattle base.
The announcement followed months of painstaking work among Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach business and government leaders to sell the region as a landing pad for a massive, cutting edge company.
Till the very end, there were signs that South Florida would win the sweepstakes, including a late-inning visit by Amazon officials and CEO Jeff Bezos himself (immortalized in Miami scenester’s Instagram photo at LIV nightclub).
The region’s bid ultimately fell short; Amazon wound up splitting the “HQ” between New York City and Northern Virginia. Still, local officials say the tri-county collaboration helped strengthen ties, and set the area up to attract future corporations looking to relocate. And there is still hope that Amazon will choose Miami if it ever decides to build an “HQ-LatAm.”
— ROB WILE
No. 3: Ten years in the making, Miami residents voted in November to allow Miami to move forward on a soccer stadium. The vote will allow the city to negotiate an exclusive lease with a group of investors led by David Beckham to build a 73-acre development, to be anchored by a 25,000-seat arena alongside at least 750 hotel rooms, 1 million square feet of office space and a 58-acre public park. The development site is currently occupied by International Links Miami - Melreese Country Club.
To win over voters, the Beckham ownership group, which includes SoftBank Group COO Marcelo Claure and MasTec executives Jorge and Jose Mas, spent nearly $900,000, according to financial disclosure documents. Beckham himself spoke before the city commission to plead the deal’s case.
The group estimates the project, called Miami Freedom Park, would create 13,000 high-paying jobs and generate more than $40 million in new tax revenues for the City of Miami, State of Florida, Miami-Dade County and Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
The group said it was seeking a lease price of $4 million per year, with an additional $20 million for the public park. Any lease agreement must still be approved by at least four out of five city commissioners. Lease negotiations have stalled pending the outcome of an ethics investigation.
— ROB WILE
No. 2: The Miami Beach Convention Center, a linchpin of regional tourism that had become badly outdated, reopened in the final quarter of 2018 to glowing reviews after a long-delayed, $620 million renovation and expansion. A striking new exterior that uses more than 500 aluminum fins to create an undulating façade — a collaboration between Fentress Architects and Arquitectonica — is only the most obvious improvement.
The additional 263,000 square feet of space brought the facility’s total to 1.43 million square feet. It means new meeting rooms and five new ballrooms, including a vast, 60,000-square-foot grand ballroom. Under the skin, the center’s tech has been significantly upgraded, including its formerly spotty WiFi. It’s expected to generate close to $5 billion over 30 years, according to the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority.
On Nov. 6, Beach voters put the feather in the convention center’s cap when they approved construction of an 800-room hotel, to be built on a city-owned parcel of land adjacent to the convention center. The changes are key to luring national meeting and conventions back to the Beach, city officials say.
— ANDRES VIGLUCCI
BRIGHTLINE GOES VIRGIN
No. 1: Just months after launching service in Miami, Brightline, the first privately owned fast-speed rail in the U.S., revealed it had ambitions far beyond Florida.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, took notice.
On the same day Brightline, controlled by Fortress Investment Group, filed to go public, the company announced Virgin Trains which operates rail lines in Britain, was taking a minority stake that would bring a name change.
“Brightline is at the forefront of innovation in this market, and the ideal partner for Virgin to work with to alter perceptions and traveling habits across the United States,” Branson said in a statement.
In its IPO filing, Brightline also revealed it now has a host of fast-speed rail corridors across the country in its sights: Atlanta to Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas to Houston; and Los Angeles to San Diego. It had previously announced the acquisition of a rail line that will speed passengers from Southern California to Las Vegas.
In its November IPO filing, Brightline reported it was operating at an $87 million loss. It was also a year of executive shakeups: COO Patrick Goddard was named president, and Jeff Swiatek, who previously held several executive positions with insurance giant AIG, was named CFO.
Still, 2018 ended on an upswing, with November ridership totaling more than 80,000 — up 34 percent from October — generating $1.5 million in monthly revenues.
Not for nothing, Florida Trend magazine named Brightline “Floridian of the Year.”
“Once upon a time, private passenger rail helped create modern Florida,” the magazine said. “This year, it began reshaping Florida again...somewhere Henry Flagler is smiling...”
— ROB WILE
Correction: This story originally named another organization instead of Venture Cafe Miami as a recipient of Knight Foundation funding.