Miami-Dade County

Miami marina expansion still alive after controversy erupts at City Hall

A rendering of RCI Group’s proposed marina expansion project on Virginia Key
A rendering of RCI Group’s proposed marina expansion project on Virginia Key

Amid allegations of “old-style Miami smoky room deals,” Miami commissioners Wednesday chose to uphold the results of a developer competition to pursue a $100-million marina expansion on Virginia Key.

But the possibility remains that they’ll reconvene soon to torpedo the controversial project — and that the city manager will begin negotiating the details of an agreement as they wait for another hearing to be set.

Commissioners voted unanimously during a special meeting to defend City Manager Daniel Alfonso’s decision to negotiate a 75-year lease with Virginia Key LLC on city land. Led by marina operator RCI Group, the development team beat out two challengers to win the right to negotiate the lease with the city to control and expand Miami’s Rickenbacker and Marine Stadium marinas.

But the reasoning behind Alfonso’s selection was challenged when the second- and third-ranked bidders filed bid protests. And some of the allegations were scandalous.

Among them: that RCI Group should have been disqualified for declining to disclose its role in a massive sewage spill at its Miami Beach Marina 16 years ago, and that the city’s head of real estate presided over the competitive solicitation while hiding financial ties to an RCI Group business partner.

“If the authorities knew about these problems and chose to ignore it, then clearly something must be rotten in the city of Miami,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, an attorney representing losing bidder Suntex.

Diaz de la Portilla, who is also a state senator, alleged that RCI Group violated a requirement that bidders disclose any past contamination of city property. County environmental regulators say none of their tests showed that the 2000 spill at RCI’s Miami Beach Marina contaminated Miami’s city land, but Suntex argued the proximity of Virginia Key to South Beach made such contamination inevitable.

Diaz de la Portilla also argued that city real estate director Dan Rotenberg’s business association with real estate firm Tate Capital tainted the whole process since Tate Capital is partnering with RCI Group on a marina project at Bahia Mar in Fort Lauderdale. That’s a problem, he said, because Rotenberg sat on a selection committee and was tasked with weighing bid protests.

Rotenberg’s mug and stated role as a “leader” on Tate Capital’s website, a detail first reported by blogger Al Crespo, was Suntex’s smoking gun.

Tate Capital, however, wrote a letter to commissioners on June 6 saying Rotenberg left the company in 2012. And Rotenberg signed a notarized statement Wednesday saying he had no financial ties with the Tate family, or with anyone involved with RCI Group. He also voted in favor of a different bidder, and at one point suggested rescinding the city manager’s recommendation in a draft response to the bid protests.

“What they were doing here was a very desperate attempt, grasping at straws,” Rotenberg said of Suntex’s allegations.

Regardless, commissioners voted 3-2 not to consider the issues involving Rotenberg or the sewage spill when hearing Suntex’s bid protest, because the company’s attorneys raised the allegations after a deadline to file protests. Commissioners also ruled that third-ranked bidder Tifon Miami didn’t have the standing to have its bid protest heard before denying Suntex’s protest and upholding Alfonso’s recommendation that RCI Group negotiate a lease with the city.

Commissioners further stated Wednesday that they opposed the city’s intent to expand the marina into the Marine Stadium Basin, a controversial aspect of the proposal. But they couldn’t decide whether removing dozens of marina slips from RCI’s project would be akin to unfairly manipulating the parameters of the city’s solicitation, requiring them to throw out the project.

“I don’t feel rushed to make this decision,” said Commissioner Francis Suarez. “We’re making a 75-year commitment.”

It’s up to Chairman Keon Hardemon to set another meeting to consider the issue. In the meantime, Alfonso said he’ll talk with the city’s legal staff in the next few days, but with the bid protests out of the way he expects to begin negotiations with RCI Group — allegations be damned.

“I sleep easy at night with my head on the pillow knowing we followed the right process,” he said after the meeting.