Business Monday

After a nasty break with the Beacon Council, Frank Nero talks about what went wrong and his next steps

Nine months after his ouster from the Beacon Council, Frank Nero in some ways keeps the organization that dismissed him front and center in his professional life.

In July, the 67-year-old formed a firm called Beacon Global Advisors. Its business card bears a lighthouse, the same logo as his former employer’s.

In March, the board of the tax-funded Beacon Council forced his resignation, ending Nero’s 17 years as Miami-Dade’s top corporate recruiter. Now Nero’s firm seeks to be on the other side of that recruitment by consulting with companies looking to relocate to Florida. That will likely have Nero approaching the Beacon Council for the kind of incentive packages he used to negotiate with consultants.

“As more and more people know that I’m out there and know I haven’t retired or gone away, I’m getting contacted,” Nero said in a recent interview. “I’ve got some proposals out to private companies who are looking to expand. Some in Miami-Dade, and some not.”

His new career as relocation consultant may be a natural next step for Nero, a veteran of Florida’s economic-development scene. It also captures a theme during a recent interview: Despite his contentious exit from the Beacon Council, Nero isn’t going anywhere.

Not only will he be on the private side of the corporate-recruitment game. After his anti-casino stance helped widen his rift with County Hall in 2011, Nero this year filmed a testimonial for the state’s leading anti-gambling group, No Casinos. And he’s working to establish a Miami operation for Italian designer, futurist and author Vito Di Bari, who recruited Nero to not only link him with the newly active construction scene but also start a South Florida arm of Di Bari’s speakers-bureau business.

Nero said he is in talks with a South Florida university to create a program devoted to economic development, and he has been volunteering his time for a group trying to use sports as a way to spur economic development in Haiti.

“I’ve been in sports development one way or the other, from the Jaguars when I was in Jacksonville [and] of course the Marlins here,’’ Nero said.

Putting a lighthouse and “Beacon” on his business card again represent an interesting turn for Nero, who endured a very public break with not only the Beacon board but also with County Hall.

The peak of the poor political relationship probably came on October 2012, when Commissioner Lynda Bell publicly said she “was treated very rudely and disrespectfully” during a private meeting with Nero and then-Beacon chair Joe Pallot. Bell accused Nero of tossing papers at her during a heated discussion about her proposal for reworking how the Beacon received its nearly $4 million annual appropriation from Miami-Dade.

Nero offered his take on the incident and its aftermath in a recent two-hour interview, his first with The Miami Herald since his departure from the Beacon Council.

Business Monday interviewed Nero in the first-floor lounge of the Miami Beach building where he now rents office space. He talked about the events leading up to his dismissal: his distant relationship with county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Nero’s effort to derail a massive casino in downtown Miami, and why he thinks Miami-Dade’s top business leaders show little commitment to economic development.

An edited excerpt of the interview follows:

Q: How much of a role did you have in your departure from the Beacon Council?

Obviously, there were some commissioners I disagreed with. I’m a former county commissioner. I may have disagreed with somebody. But I never disrespected anybody. I always respected the position.

Q: What happened in that last meeting with the Beacon Council board?

It really didn’t boil down to whether I was going to stay or not. It’s not viable to stay when there is that much turmoil. I understood that.

I was ready to move on. I think how I would leave was what the debate was over. I was given a take it or leave it [severance package]. It was a moving target. I was told initially we will give you a month for every year. Which is not uncommon. Then it was 12 months. Then it was nine months. Then it was 3 months take it or leave it. [Nero and the Beacon Council agreed to a six-month severance package for a job with a base salary of about $270,000.]

After that final meeting, I wasn’t even given an opportunity to say goodbye to my staff. Which I found to be very punitive and, I felt, unwarranted. I was basically told to leave. I came back on that Saturday and packed up my office and left.

I did work there for 17 years. They did renew my contract four months before without a dissenting vote. They did give me a bonus every year. I must have been doing something right.

Q: And what had they told you had done wrong?

Nothing. But I understood why it happened. I’m not naïve.

I think it was the perfect storm. There were a couple of commissioners who for their own political agenda decided OK, let’s go after it [meaning, the Beacon Council’s tax funding]. That’s nothing new. But in the past there has always been a mayor who wouldn’t let it happen. And quite frankly, I think some of our leadership [on the Beacon Council board] wasn’t as strong as it was in the past. And they acquiesced for fear of losing money. And you know what? I understand that.

Q: In the months before, you and Joe Pallot were fighting the same battle against the commissioners in terms of the Beacon Council funding.

We were, until we weren’t.

Q: When did that change?

It did change. And I think it changed when one of the commissioners accused me of being rude to her, of throwing papers at her. It didn’t happen. And Joe said, well, ‘I’m going to apologize.’ And I said, Joe, we didn’t do anything. You were there. ‘Well, it will make her happy.’

We fell into the trap Once he did that, it opened the flood gates.

Joe was there because for over a decade, I was pushing him to be the chair. He was the one guy who I said: He deserves to be chair, he should be chair, he’s paid his dues. Finally, the year he was selected chair, I said ‘you’re the one who is leading this.’ I find it kind of ironic

I haven’t spoken to him since the day I left and probably never will. I felt he did not handle it well.

[Asked for a statement last week, Pallot wrote: “I believed then, and still today, that apologizing to Commissioner Bell for her having felt mistreated was the right thing to do. The Beacon Council is looking towards the future by continuing to work with our community partners, both public and private, to expand the job base throughout Miami-Dade.”]

[Bell was not available for comment.]

Q: Did you feel that behind Pallot, County Hall was pushing for your exit?

Absolutely. Without question.

Q: Do you tie that to gambling?

I think because the gambling issue was heating up again, they knew that I would be very strong in my opinions. I know this [casino] industry. I’m probably as knowledgeable as anyone in the county. The irony is, that by leaving the Beacon, I can be more vocal than I would have been.

Pretty much, the only ones who benefit from casino gambling are the people who work in the industry. It hinders and thwarts our ability to continue to diversify our economy. It will be a millstone around our neck as we’re trying to say we are more than just tourism. Tourism is important. It’s the foundation of our economy. But I think we can be about more than that.

A casino town is not the kind of community I would like to see my grandchildren grow up in. If it happens, it happens. But I think we have raised enough issues that the county would get the best deal possible.

Q: In the fall of 2011, you called The Miami Herald into your Beacon Council office to give a pretty detailed presentation on why a large casino would be bad for Miami. In my mind, that was a major moment in the gambling debate. What was the reaction?

At least three of my past chairs called [then chair] Alan Becker and demanded I immediately be fired. A board member told me [an Gimenez aide said of Nero]: ‘Oh, yes the guy from the Beacon Council. He’s the one who threw the mayor under the bus on gambling.’ Now I thought I saved the mayor from getting run over by the bus. Maybe I’m wrong.

I had hoped there would be an objective evaluation by the government looking at the pros and cons of this. That did not happen. I think it was on a course to be passed, quite frankly.

Q: You mentioned Alan Becker. He and his law firm represent pari-mutuel casinos. At the time a lot of people said, this is not fair for Nero to be publicly anti-casino because Becker’s gambling clients do not want an expansion of gambling, either.

Alan and I talked about that. He never once told me where to go, what my position should be. ...There are a lot of things I am sure he wishes I hadn’t said.

Q: Describe your relationship with Mayor Gimenez.

I never had the ongoing conversation with him that I had with every mayor I ever worked with. Even to brief him was very difficult.

I think he viewed us almost as another county department. And somehow we should operate as a county department. And that’s the thrust of what the future of the organization may be.

[Asked for a response to Nero’s comments, Gimenez issued a statement touting his economic initiatives. It read in part: “Since becoming Mayor, economic development has been a top priority and we have been focused on multiple levels. ... County departments have also been focused on streamlining processes to help new and existing businesses. I believe that government does not create jobs, instead we must help create the conditions for economic development and the job growth that comes with it. While I believe we have accomplished much, there is still much to be done and economic development remains a top priority.”]

I think increasingly you’re going to have the mayor and the commission calling the shots.

I think that is what is driving the name change. [Gimenez has called for renaming the Beacon Council to reflect its ties to Miami.] For the Beacon Council to now be conducting 14 or 15 business seminars in each commission district. I mean, someone should look at the law and see what the Beacon Council is supposed to be. We’re a marketing agency.

To have the commissioners say, ‘I want these seminars’ — that’s what happens when the policy is set by a political agenda, rather than an economic agenda.

Q: But the Beacon Council has always had monthly seminars and symposiums on business topics for members. And the Beacon Council has its annual meeting and awards ceremony. Had it already drifted too far into being another Chamber of Commerce?

We always wrestled with that. It was borne out of a necessity to make money.

The business community here is not engaged in economic development. It’s just not. We don’t have the major players, and I don’t mean the companies but I mean leadership, who are really in leadership positions throughout these organizations. If you had an umbrella [economic organization that included the Beacon Council, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, the World Trade Center and other economic groups] whose top board at least had the top captains of industry, rather than the ensigns of industry, maybe that would give us the ability to raise the necessary dollars.

Q: How can sports help Haiti?

We’re looking at sports that initially don’t need infrastructure. We’re looking at half marathons maybe. Bike races. Ironmans. Maybe it’s soccer. Because it doesn’t need stadiums. Just fields.

One of the thoughts are some of the international teams — some of them come to Miami and do training here. Maybe we can interest some of the major Latin American or European soccer teams to do something.

Q: What did you do after your departure from the Beacon Council?

For about the first three or four months after I left the Beacon, I couldn’t do much. For a while there, I was worried about losing my cornea. I had a viral infection in my eye. It was pretty serious.

Q: Was that stress-related?

Yep. It was funny. My doctor asked: Have you been under any stress lately? I said: Have you read the papers?