Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade delays decision on Boat Show permit

Dozens of people gathered to protest the Miami International Boat Show’s move to Virginia Key. This file photo is from Saturday, August 29, 2015.
Dozens of people gathered to protest the Miami International Boat Show’s move to Virginia Key. This file photo is from Saturday, August 29, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Miami-Dade commissioners delayed a showdown vote Tuesday on the Miami International Boat Show moving to Virginia Key, holding back a waterfront permit that an organizer said is crucial to being able to hold the large event in February.

After an extended back and forth between show supporters and leaders of Key Biscayne, which is fighting the new location, county commissioners unanimously voted to defer a permit vote until Dec. 15. That further condenses what the Boat Show says is already a tight timetable as it tries to secure a new home after spending decades at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“This is a very awkward situation,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz. “Anyway you look at it, there’s an issue.”

The show, slated to start Feb. 11, is seeking a permit for an 830-slip dock system off Marine Stadium in Virginia Key, though organizers say they only plan to build around 500 slips. The permit would also allow the show to shuttle tens of thousands of visitors by water taxi and bus into an island connected to the mainland by one bridge. Organizers want the county to approve a permit allowing it 90 days to build and deconstruct the docks each year, and run water taxis in and out of the harbor. The permit would last three years, and the county’s environmental arm recommended that the 13-member commission approve it.

Boat show organizers are looking for new space thanks to the upcoming renovation of the convention center, which is landlocked but sits in the heart of Miami-Dade’s hotel industry on the northern edge of South Beach. With 1,200 exhibitors and an estimated 100,000 visitors, the show says Virginia Key’s waterfront location offers a chance to reinforce the show’s role as a tourism generator and economic bulwark for the marine industry.

This is a very awkward situation.

Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz

“For 20 years, I’ve worked on the show, setting up and dismantling the show,” said Alan Lichtman, a leader of the union representing Boat Show event crews. “Thousands of residents depend on the Boat Show every year.”

Key Biscayne, the island next to Virginia Key, cites traffic and other issues in objecting to the plan, while environmentalists are criticizing the extensive boat runs and dock work needed to move one of the country’s largest marine shows to the site. The show is held during Presidents’ Day Weekend, at the same time as the Coconut Grove Arts Festival.

Both are among the largest tourism events on Miami-Dade’s calendar, and the Virginia Key location sits within five miles of the festival, compared to the 12-mile drive between the beach and the Grove.

“Everyone knows a traffic nightmare will exist for at least the duration of the show,” said Key Biscayne resident Allene Nicholson. “You’re effectively cutting off the right of the public, and of your tourists, to [access] the beaches.”

While parking would be available at the show and in nearby satellite locations, organizers plan the vast majority of visitors to arrive by shuttle bus or water taxi.

Opponents cast the Boat Show’s Virginia Key ambitions as a way to transform the historic Marine Stadium property into a commercial enterprise, while the nonprofit show’s organizers say the Miami-owned location offers one of the few viable alternatives for an event now in its 74th year.

Everyone knows a traffic nightmare will exist for at least the duration of the show.

Key Biscayne resident Allene Nicholson

Miami backs the show’s relocation, and is in litigation with Key Biscayne over a $23 million project that will create event space on the land. One issue is a rider on the deed from when Miami-Dade transferred the land to Miami in the 1960s. It requires activity to be limited to supporting the stadium, a once thriving waterfront venue that’s now closed to the public and is a favorite graffiti target.

Cathy Rick-Joule, the show’s director, said after the vote that without a county environmental permit allowing for the temporary docks “it is very unlikely we would move forward” with the 2016 show. She said she doubted it would come to that. “The county is not willing to lose a piece of business” this large, she said.