South Beach nightclub promoter and entrepreneur Michael Capponi is standing in the soon-to-be inaugurated lobby of his latest luxury development.
Men are hammering away to restore an historic old building to its former glory. Capponi, 39, is holding forth about the amazing vibe the place has, comparing the semi-derelict building to Ernest Hemingway’s famous old Key West residence, which is a popular tourist museum.
“Visitors will enter here,” he says, treading over rubble-strewn debris. “We’re keeping it very traditional-Caribbean style; brick built, open to the outside, no air-conditioning.”
Capponi, who made his name in the early 90s on SoBe with a string of nightclubs, is in his element. Famous for promoting venues such as Warsaw, Amnesia, B.E.D. and LIV, he knows ‘the secret sauce,’ as he calls it – ambience, energy, big name people – required to create a new ‘in’ scene.
Only this isn’t SoBe, and Capponi isn’t standing in any old derelict building. This is a derelict building in one of the most derelict countries in the world: Haiti. What was he thinking!
That’s not all. This is no hedonistic SoBe project to create a club space for a few hundred people to drink and dance all night long. Capponi’s new mission involves fixing up a whole city – if not the entire country.
This daunting undertaking might sound wildly ambitious, not to say foolhardy. But for this 39-year-old reformed heroin addict the humanitarian challenge is too compelling to ignore.
“I think we can revitalize this country completely and make it a place people want to visit,” he says. “It’s doable.”
Until last year Capponi had never set foot in Haiti. An avid surfer, he was more familiar with the popular resorts next door in the Dominican Republic, where he liked to go for the waves.
But on Jan. 17, 2010, five days after a devastating earthquake hit southern Haiti, killing an estimated 250,000 people, he found himself on a private jet with a relief team he assembled of doctors and a dozen Miami Beach firemen. It wasn’t a new role for Capponi, who had long been involved in humanitarian causes.
The experience marked him for life. Despite the shocking injuries and gaping, maggot-invested wounds he helped clean, he fell in love with Haiti, and its people.
Capponi has been back 32 times since that visit. At first it was as just one of the many relief workers. But that soon evolved into a deeper commitment. He bought 700 tents and built a camp for 3,000 homeless earthquake victims in the capital Port-au-Prince, paid for by several fundraisers Capponi organized with the United Way of Miami-Dade, of which he is a board member.
Now he has gone one step further. Frustrated by the slow pace of the international recovery effort and his desire to resettle the tent city dwellers, Capponi has launched a tourism redevelopment project in Jacmel, a quaint town on the south coast known for its local artists and papier-maché handicrafts.
The idea was born last December when he was invited to visit Jacmel by actress Maria Bello, and her friend, venture capitalist Reza Bundy. Capponi was in a quandary. His support for the tent city was dragging on far longer than he had planned. But he couldn’t abandon the families who had come to depend on him so heavily.
Single, with no children of his own, Capponi had grown attached to the camp kids who clung to him every time he visited shouting his name ‘Miko! Miko!’
“I thought I was going to be out of there in six months and the international community would take over,” he says. “But how do you walk away?” Capponi had barely set foot in Jacmel
before he realized what his next move would be. The town, with a population of about 60,000, has produced some of Haiti’s best-known painters, writers and poets. Its distinctive French colonial architecture and rich cultural scene give it an Old World charm that makes it stand out from the rest of the country. In fact, Jacmel’s urban and architectural design is credited with having influenced New Orleans’ French Quarter.
He saw the potential right away, and immediately began creating a new vision for the historic downtown district. In no time at all he had teamed up with several local Haitian business leaders, eager to see the town reborn.
Within weeks Capponi had architectural plans ready, as well as a rendering of how the new Jacmel might look. Next he began bringing families from his tent camp in Port-au-Prince to a new camp in Jacmel financed by the United Way and the Miami-Dade County League of Cities.
Capponi’s project has since mushroomed into a plan to redevelop the city and the surrounding coastline, involving a group of American and Haitian activists and entrepreneurs, all united in the quest to rebrand the country as a hip tourist destination.
“This is a dream come true. We want to be a Caribbean cultural destination,” says Yanick Martin, the director of the state’s regional tourism office, who owns an art gallery in downtown Jacmel.
“Michael has developed this crush on Haiti,” says Danielle Saint-Lot, a former Tourism Minister who lives in Jacmel. “What’s interesting about Michael’s project is that it has a concrete business perspective. That’s what we needed, his business approach.”
Some of the group have been involved in Jacmel for some time, including Bello and New York film director David Belle who runs a film school in Jacmel, the Ciné Institute. Others, such as legendary designer Donna Karan and tennis star Venus Williams, were introduced to Haiti after the earthquake, along with Capponi.
Belle is a member of the group Artists for Peace and Justice, which has attracted major star power to Haiti, including recent visitors Penelope Cruz, Clint Eastwood, Demi Moore, Ben Stiller and Victoria’s Secret head photographer, Russell James. Film director Paul Haggis (Crash) recently gave a master class to students at the Ciné Institute.
“There’s a great synergy behind what Michael is doing. I stand shoulder to shoulder with him,” says Belle, who hopes to attract the New York and Miami Beach fashion industry to Jacmel, providing work experience for students at the
film school. “There’s such a wealth of talent here that needs to be nurtured.”
It was Belle who persuaded Karan to visit. “There’s been a trend of Hollywood endorsing Haiti from the angle of corporate social responsibility. Donna is part of that, but she’s gone the extra step seeing where the talent lies,” he says.
Bello fell in love with Jacmel three years ago, and now divides her time between Los Angeles and Haiti. She recently finished filming the pilot for a U.S. version of the hit British detective series Prime Suspect, due out on NBC in the fall, as
well as a movie, Beautiful Boy, with Michael Sheen, to be released in June.
“When you realize that Haiti is only one-and-a-half hours [by plane] off our shores, it makes you want to do something about it,” she says.
A social activist, Bello created her own women’s health program, We Advance, in Port-au-Prince, where she also supports a pediatric hospital, St. Damian and a new school project for earthquake victims.
After she discovered Jacmel she bought land with two Haitian partners and is building a beachfront eco-lodge on Cabique beach, a sandy, palm-lined half moon bay a few miles east of Jacmel.
Bello, Belle and others credit Capponi for his vision and welcome his promotional zeal to transform Haiti’s image.
“Michael lit the fire,” says one of Bello’s Haitian partners, restaurateur Lorraine Silvera, a paintbrush in one hand touching up her beachfront home at Cabique. “He’s a doer. He’s totally dedicated and he’s done so much in such a short time.”
While his involvement in Haiti might seem a far cry from his fast life on SoBe, it does not surprise those who know him well.
“Michael seems to have found his calling,” says Miami Beach commissioner and condo lawyer, Michael Gongora. “He’s been through a lot of adversity and he clearly wants to give back.”
Capponi’s character was molded by the school of hard knocks. His parents moved to Miami from Belgium when he was small. His father was an endurance swimmer who twice broke the record for swimming the English Channel.
A friend persuaded him to invest in Coconut Grove’s Mayfair development in the early 80s. The project failed and Capponi’s parents divorced. Capponi ran away.
He later returned to live with his mother in Key Biscayne, but soon began to run wild with the local kids, the ‘Key Rats’. He recalls slipping out his bedroom window aged 13 to spend nights with his friends in Crandon Park taking LSD and listening to The Doors and Led Zeppelin.
A BMX biker he competed regularly, won a state championship, and was featured in ads for Coca Cola and Twix.
He began working for nightclubs at 15, organizing private parties, racing up and down Washington and Collins on his skateboard posting flyers.
By his own estimate he was earning as much as $10,000 a month before he even graduated from high school.
He left home his senior year and rented an apartment on South Beach. It wasn’t such a strange move. The club scene runs in his blood. Both his father and grandfather were famous nightclub owners in Europe.
A 1993 Miami New Times article, Confessions of a Lounge Lizard, by Tom Austin, described Capponi as “a promoter with a higher calling.”
Austin went on, “Like a rock star, Capponi has accomplished at a very young age the neat trick of having money, celebrity, and the attention of beautiful women without the sacrifice of abandoning his personal style or buying into a corporate structure.”
But his drug habit spun out of control when he started using heroin. Before long he had an $800-a-day habit, and had lost his apartment in South Pointe Towers. By the winter of 1995 he wound up homeless on the streets of New York.
After enduring a blizzard that brought with it four feet of snow, he accepted the offer of a plane ticket from his father to enter a methadone program in Belgium.
But his treatment had barely begun before he collapsed in a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was benign though removing it required major surgery and three months in the hospital. As if that wasn’t enough, while he was recovering his father had a stroke and died.
That was when Capponi decided to turn his life around. After a detox period in Canada he found himself drawn back to Miami Beach.
“I helped make Miami Beach part of what it is and I left in disgrace,” he says over a plate of conch at a Jacmel hotel overlooking the bay. “I had to come back and fix that.”
He didn’t take long to reinvent himself, but second time around would be different. “I felt now my life had to have some meaningful purpose,” he says.
In 2005, he started the Capponi Group, which includes construction, design and development components.
He also threw himself into community activity, especially with the homeless. “Michael is wonderful. He has a lot of compassion,” says Marilyn Brummitt of the Miami Rescue Mission which runs three centers for the homeless in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Capponi has helped organize hundreds of volunteers each year to feed the homeless at Thanksgiving, Christmas and on Good Friday. He also helped finance the refurbishing of the Rescue Mission’s medical clinic, for which he was given a community award in 2009 in a ceremony presided over by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Combining his work with the homeless in Miami and Haiti makes perfect sense, he says.
“Living in a material, lavish world you’re not always that comfortable with it, but then you go back to Haiti and you see how that is and you’re very appreciative of what you have....It puts a full perspective on everything.”
Capponi moves fast. The motto of his construction company in Miami Beach is ‘Watch Our Speed.’
In Jacmel he has his hands full. “The first thing we are going to do is clean up the beach,” he says driving over the litter-strewn sand in a rented land cruiser, as, nearby, a number of goats and pigs nose through the trash.
There’s a few ‘first things’ that need to be done, but Capponi is not daunted. “I see the road paved and a bar over there,” he says, pointing to some thatched huts under palms swaying in the salty breeze. The city’s only beach hotel, La Jacmelienne, sits empty.
The last time it was full was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton sent in U.S. Special Forces to oust a military regime.
“Right now there’s no tourists, but these tables could be full of people having tropical drinks,” Capponi adds. “I see a stage here, full moon beach parties with Haitian music....”
Capponi and his partners have already begun work on restoring a 19th century former coffee sorting house on the Jacmel seafront and making it into a 44-room, boutique hotel. The project includes a spa, adjacent shops, including a French patisserie, and a tourism information center to promote local attractions including hiking tours to local waterfalls, horseback riding, boat trips to picnic on out-of-the-way beaches, scuba diving and water sports.
A second floor infinity-edged pool, above the old coffee sorting pits will offer a spectacular view over the bay. The hotel will also feature a Venus Williams tennis academy with its use split between hotel guests and an after-school program for the local kids.
The hotel is scheduled to open in November as the first phase of the project. “Donna [Karan] loves it. She was walking through here the other day saying ‘I’m picking the colors right now, and the furniture,’” Capponi adds.
Karan is also working with local artisans to develop lines of handicrafts to sell to tourists, as well as exporting to her high end outlets in the U.S.
Capponi persuaded Haitian hip hop artist Wyclef Jean to fund a hospitality school to train local Haitians for the coming tourism boom. Meanwhile, Belle plans to expand the Cine Institute into a full-fledged university for the arts.
“This is where I see the fashion shoots happening,” says Capponi pointing to a secluded beach during a boat ride along the coast with his partner, Joel Khawly, a wealthy local businessman. “It’s raw Haiti, unspoiled and beautiful.” Another spot on the coast will host an international Wanderlust yoga festival in February.
A new day dawning
Capponi believes the restoration of Jacmel could provide a new sustainable development model for Haiti, largely independent of the major international government-funded agencies, oft criticized for waste and inefficiency.
Tourism still faces major hurdles in Haiti due to poor infrastructure such as electricity and roads, though the country does have nationwide cellphone coverage. Jacmel is blessed with a new airport building, though the runway is too short for large international passenger jets. Instead, visitors must either travel by small plane, or by road from Port-au-Prince, a 46-mile journey through teeming slums and over a mountain range, that can take almost three hours.
Capponi’s friends are working on a plan to fly visitors in from the neighboring Dominican Republic which has better short distance airlines and regular flights to Haiti.
His plans aren’t without critics. Some Haiti advocates look askance at money-making ventures in the aftermath of the earthquake. But Capponi believes a new approach to the country is needed.
While he supports the multi-billion dollar efforts of foreign governments and aid agencies to reconstruct Haiti, “it became apparent to me that you can’t keep giving people stuff for free,” Capponi says. “We need to make a gradual shift from charity to
empowerment. We need to empower the people of Haiti and encourage them to use their talents.”
Capponi and his friends are also adamant that their plan for Haiti seeks not to exploit, but rather to offer a helping hand to a nation in need.
“Haiti is very, very special. It’s not going to be the Cayman Islands or the Bahamas, with cruise ships and golf courses,” Capponi says. “That’s not what we are doing here. We are here to restore and preserve the local culture of Haiti and showcase it to the world.”
Instead, the idea behind the Jacmel redevelopment is more about encouraging social tourism, or ‘voluntourism,’ where investors seek to promote the local culture as well as the beaches. “We’re here to kind of help repaint the image of what Haiti has,” says Capponi.
He recognizes that it may be an uphill battle. “If I wanted to start a business, open a hotel, this is not where I would start,” he says. “But in terms of life accomplishments, if we pull this off it will be worth it. I could die with a grin on my face and say ‘I had a hand in it.’”
To learn more about Jacmel go to www.discoveringhaiti.com. Also visit poder360.com for a picture gallery and film about the project
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(This article is republished with the permission of Poder magazine)