The future of South Florida’s premier boating event seemed bright just a few months ago, as an 84-foot yacht glided across the shimmering waters of Biscayne Bay toward the Miami Marine Stadium.
It was a grand entrance for National Marine Manufacturers Association executives, who alongside pop icon Gloria Estefan docked at the graffiti-tagged venue and proudly proclaimed the abandoned site their new home. And it was a feel-good story, with their presence expected to finally ignite efforts to restore the historic structure.
But a $120 million deal to restore the stadium and redevelop the surrounding area swiftly capsized. And now, with their long-time home at the Miami Beach Convention Center no longer available, Boat Show organizers find themselves in uncharted waters, spending millions to prepare for their February event while fighting a storm of lawsuits that could blow them off course.
“There’s a lot of people who live on the back of the marine industry. In the worst-case scenario, if the Boat Show doesn’t happen in 2016, think of all those people who don’t have a job,” said Cathy Rick-Joule, the NMMA’s vice president of boat shows. “Anything is possible.”
It’s a conundrum that Boat Show representatives have been loathe to acknowledge.
Since November, when Miami commissioners rejected a grand stadium redevelopment proposal but embraced the Boat Show, the non-profit National Marine Manufacturers Association and the city have sputtered on with a plan to make the event’s 75th year the most successful.
The city is sinking $16 million into the stadium grounds, with plans to create an outdoor event space that can be lined with turf and used as a playing field during down times. Meanwhile, the Boat Show — which continues to host Strictly Sail at Bayside Marketplace and a yacht and power boat show at Sea Isle Marina — has given the city $3 million for electrical upgrades, and spent another $3 million to install temporary docks in the stadium basin, where speed boats once raced in front of thousands of fans
Their vision is expansive. The Boat Show will take over the north side of the Rickenbacker Causeway, hauling in 1,500 boats, including about 500 in the water. A Medley company is installing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and erecting massive tents spanning about 800,000 square feet. And the company that manages the Rusty Pelican is running food and beverage sales for the event from their waterfront restaurant east to the Miami Rowing Club.
To get 100,000 people in and out over five days, organizers want to park about 4,000 drivers on Virginia Key Beach, and ferry thousands more from the mainland with water taxis and shuttles from more than a dozen lots. Meanwhile, police will help keep one lane of traffic open for local drivers and help control traffic on the entrance to the causeway.
It’s a complicated plan, to be sure. But Rick-Joule said Boat Show executives looked around at other South Florida sites, including Marlins Stadium, PortMiami, the FEC slip and the old Bertram Yacht site, and nothing else worked.
Besides, after being landlocked at the Miami Beach Convention Center, the Miami International Boat Show’s main event will now be located on the water, with pristine views of downtown Miami. Boat Show executives hedged for months, but they now say they envision the stadium as a permanent home.
“It’s ideal,” Rick-Joule said. “It really is a beautiful piece of property. And it’s been sitting there unloved and untended for a long time.”
There is one serious complication with the site, however: On the other end of the causeway is the Village of Key Biscayne, population 12,000, where residents have been known to react passionately to big projects along the causeway — the one way in and out of their island paradise.
The Miami Seaquarium learned that in the 1990s, when Key Biscayne residents successfully fought off a $70 million expansion. And now the city of Miami and the NMMA are finding that life along the Rickenbacker Causeway — which the county built for the Key in exhange for the land where Crandon Park sits — is complicated.
Wary of the Boat Show’s footprint, and the possibility that Miami might use its new event space to lure other large events, as previously anticipated, Key Biscayne officials sued the city in February to stop the construction of the so-called “flex park.” Initially, the members of the Village Council said they filed the lawsuit to force meaningful discussion with the city, but they have become increasingly combative, accusing Miami administrators of talking out of both sides of their mouths and suing the NMMA over alleged public records violations.
At first, Key Biscayne worried mainly about traffic, and the potential of the causeway becoming a parking lot for five days. But Village officials have also questioned the legality of the city’s plans by pointing to a deed restriction that limits activities on the site to the Marine Stadium and “allied purposes only,” with the threat that the land could be reclaimed by the county. They have characterized the city’s $16 million investment as a gift to a private organization worth millions (the Florida Legislature also contributed $500,000 to the move).
Meanwhile, environmentalists fret about the show’s proximity to a critical wildlife area on the north side of the basin that is off limits to vessels and home to shallow sea grass beds important to manatees. Those concerns seemed justified when the Army Corps of Engineers responded to a Boat Show permit application for temporary docks with 833 slips by responding that the plans could cause “substantial” harm to Biscayne Bay bottom, where fish and other marine life live.
Rick-Joule says the show that is planned next year is significantly smaller than the “pie in the sky” footprint applied for in April, and that “no red flags” have been raised by local, state or federal permitting agencies. But critics remain skeptical, questioning whether the city’s plans for the Marine Stadium site are in line with a Virginia Key master plan put into place years ago.
“I see some flaws in the plans,” Gary Milano, a former county Department of Environmental Resources Management employee, said Tuesday during a public meeting called to try to resolve the dispute between the city and Key Biscayne. “This size and scale of commercial use is not something I think the voters and the commission approved at the time.”
There was no resolution Tuesday. Now, it appears that only a smaller Boat Show and some kind of guarantee that Miami will limit events on the stadium grounds can stave off litigation. If the case goes to court, Key Biscayne will be seeking a temporary injunction to stop the construction of the flex park, raising the potential that the area might not be ready by December when intense set-up for the Boat Show is to begin.
And that has some in the industry concerned. According to a 2013 economic analysis of the Boat Show by Thomas J. Murray & Associates, Florida companies did $312 million in sales, and more than one-third of the show’s visitors came from out of state, filling 200,000 hotel room nights. The study found that show-related spending was greater than from the 2012 Super Bowl.
“The Boat Show for our business is like Christmas for us,” said Key Biscayne resident Harry Vernon III, of Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply.
Joe Neber, president of Contender Boats, a company with about 200 Miami-Dade employees, said his company displays products at the Miami Boat Show for international dealers and writes orders that have an eight-month “residual effect on our business.”
“When he says it’s like Christmas, I’m going to tell you it’s my entire year,” Neber said.
But Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay said she’s not trying to end the Boat Show. She says she’s just asking the NMMA and the city of Miami to be reasonable.
“Nobody wants to kill the Boat Show. We just propose there are better sites,” she said. “It might not be what they want, but they’re coming here asking for $16 million in taxpayer dollars, using public parkland, precious waterfront land, in an environmentally sensitive basin. And they don’t see anything wrong with it?”
Whatever happens among the Boat Show, Miami and Key Biscayne will play out in the coming months, with construction crews preparing the Marine Stadium grounds to turn over for set up around November. The NMMA has first rights of refusal for their President’s Day weekend dates at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 2018 following its renovation, but the outdoors space the Boat Show once utilized will be gone, and there will likely be additional set-up challenges.
But it’s not likely that the Boat Show will get any smaller. Rick- Joule says the size of the main event is part of its allure and the amount of exhibitors.
“Our goals were to keep the amount of square footage that the current footprint accommodated because that’s the show people come from all over the world for,” she said. “They don’t come from over 80 countries and 50 states to see a local little boat show.”