Miami-Dade County

Want to build a marina in Miami? Lobbying required.

A portion of Rickenbacker Marina on Virginia Key.
A portion of Rickenbacker Marina on Virginia Key. City of Miami

When it comes to landing a lifetime lease for public waterfront land in Miami, it helps to have an experienced team, good design and a profitable plan.

But as Mayor Tomás Regalado’s Virginia Key marina redevelopment project shows, it also helps to know somebody who knows somebody.

Over the summer, Regalado’s proposal to turn two aging city marinas into a modern boating and tourist destination succeeded at a minimum in attracting a slew of registered lobbyists and lawyers. With just three teams bidding on a 75-year lease, no fewer than 13 attorneys and four architects were hired to work the deal, not to mention one commissioner’s aunt, another’s campaign consultant and a third’s former chief of staff.

The project slowly imploded last summer amid controversy. Now the mayor’s administration is taking one last desperate shot at rekindling the effort before he leaves office in the fall, and the connections between the bidders and politicians are only growing deeper.

After mostly staying out of the lobbying arms race last year, the current family-owned operator of the to-be redeveloped Rickenbacker Marina has beefed up its team. The company is fighting to keep the city from once again seeking competitive bids Thursday for a redesigned development competition — which would almost certainly push the project back to another year and keep the family in business in the meantime.

In December, Eston “Dusty” Melton registered to lobby for the company, followed the next month by Michael Llorente, a procurement attorney with LSN Partners and former chief of staff to Commissioner Francis Suarez.

Together, they’ve helped Rickenbacker Marina President Aabad Melwani warn that the city is leaving too much uncertain right now, for instance, by encouraging a project that likely won’t comply with the current zoning for the 26-acre area. Melwani also believes the city, which has a spotty record when it comes to developing public waterfront land, is backing developers into a corner by hiking the minimum rent despite reducing the scope of the previous redevelopment plan.

Though a long delay of the solicitation would ostensibly benefit Melwani, he says he’s motivated by a desire to pursue and win a viable project rather than one doomed to endless litigation or financial insolvency.

“The City will award a 75 year lease on the one of the most vast, environmentally sensitive, and coveted pieces of public waterfront on the country,” Melwani said in a statement. “After competing against two formidable corporate entities with significant lobbying power last year, we have added expertise to our team that will put us in the best position to navigate the political process.”

If anything, Melwani is only keeping up with the Joneses. Last year, when he hired only three procurement and land-use attorneys to represent him, his team came in third.

Runner-up Suntex, on the other hand, employed the services of Commissioner Ken Russell’s campaign consultant, Fernando Diez, and Seth Gordon, a key campaign supporter. And they employed a team of at least five Greenberg Traurig and Arnstein & Lehr attorneys, including then-State Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.

Not to be outdone, RCI Group, whose team won the city’s recommendation only to see the project scrapped, had help from more than a half-dozen attorneys, as well as veteran lobbyist Brian May and Barbara Hardemon, the aunt of commission chairman Keon Hardemon. They also tapped Richard Kuper, a former chief of staff to Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort and husband to one of the commissioner’s staffers.

Additionally, RCI Group chairman Bob Christoph Sr. is a past business partner with former Monty’s Raw Bar owner Stephen Kneapler, a Regalado confidant. Kneapler, a member of the city’s Virginia Key Advisory Board, bristles at suggestions he’s improperly influencing the process and counters that the debate over whether to delay the solicitation is “pure politics” that could ultimately keep the city from paying off $45 million in special obligation bonds tied to revenues on Virginia Key.

For now, Suntex and RCI Group appear to have tamped down the lobbying, though their representatives have held meetings this week with elected officials to urge that the solicitation move forward, saying it can be tweaked with standard procurement addenda.

A number of the attorneys and lobbyists registered over the summer have not filed new papers to lobby in 2017, although Christoph and Suntex executive David Filler expect to retain much of their old teams if the project goes out to bid.

“After the experience we had, which was very expensive, we want to see something happen before we even worry about it,” Christoph said.

But it remains possible that if and when the solicitation goes out, all those attorneys and lobbyists may be working for one team: Suntex and RCI Group officials have discussed bidding as one team the next go-round.

“They have a ticking clock” Filler said of commissioners. “We hope they do the right thing.”//