Who is Moishe Mana, and why did he drop $350 million on Miami real estate?

Moishe Mana, who owns a huge chunk of Wynwood and downtown Miami’s Flagler Street, is photographed at his Wynwood office on November 2, 2017.
Moishe Mana, who owns a huge chunk of Wynwood and downtown Miami’s Flagler Street, is photographed at his Wynwood office on November 2, 2017. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Moishe Mana’s march to riches and influence really did start with a single van. His is a classic American tale. The Israeli-born law-school dropout parlayed that van into a ubiquitous New York City moving company that begat 14 or 15 other related enterprises, including a document-storage offshoot that, just by itself, generates $100 million in annual revenue.

That was only his first act. Mana then turned urban-turnaround artist, taking on an early role in the transformation of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and transmuting a 35-acre swath of grimy industrial buildings in distressed Jersey City into a sprawling, humming full-service hub for artists, art collectors and art institutions.

Now the bantam-size billionaire has focused his gigantic ambitions on Miami, where he has quietly become the single biggest landowner in two key resurgent neighborhoods. If his so-far keen instincts are right, Wynwood and downtown Miami’s Flagler Street could propel the city’s rise as a global tech and trade hub.

Mana swept into town seven years ago, picking up the derelict Wynwood free trade zone complex at auction for a bargain $5 million. Eventually he amassed 40 mostly contiguous acres in what’s now the city’s hottest neighborhood, where a single block is now on the market for $45 million.

Quietly, he also began assembling property on another once-thriving district fallen on hard times: Downtown Miami’s downtrodden historic main drag, Flagler Street. The Israeli-born Mana, who took a job as a dishwasher when he moved to New York in 1983, now owns nearly 50 buildings and lots on the storied street, which, as he is conspicuously aware, bears the name of the city’s founder.

To acquire all that prime if underappreciated Miami real estate, Mana has dropped a tidy $350 million. He has renovated the old trade-zone buildings into offices and event spaces, and last year won city approval for a controversially massive upzoning to build a cultural center and trade hub on his Wynwood holdings. And then ... well, not much since, actually.

And so everyone, but everyone, has been waiting and wondering: What exactly does Mana have up his sleeve?

Prompted by persistent questions, the press-shy Mana is beginning to speak publicly and amply. He is speaking quite a bit, in fact — do not get him started on Donald Trump, whom he detests — but he’s not saying anything too specific about his plans to build. At least not yet. Nor has he yet submitted formal applications for building approvals or permits for his major initiatives at the city.

In a 40-minute interview, Mana laid out, in broad strokes, a vision for an Asia-Latin America trade hub in Wynwood that he says could turn Miami into the Hong Kong of the Americas, and a tech hub in a revitalized, mixed-use district on Flagler that he believes could become “the Silicon Valley” of Latin America.

A rendering showing entrepreneur Moishe Mana’s vision for a mini-city in Wynwood focused on culture and trade between Latin America and Asia. Courtesy Moishe Mana

In his minimal corner office at the Wynwood complex, grandly rechristened Mana Wynwood, poster boards and a big TV screen display renderings of buildings in the contemplated mini-city that would rise outside his window as well as in a revitalized Flagler Street. Just past the office door, staffers bustle about in a bullpen of sorts centered on a shared work table.

In the absence of specific plans, speculation has arisen that Mana intends to flip his Wynwood properties for a small fortune, or that he plans to demolish his aging if possibly historic properties on Flagler and put up skyscrapers in their stead.

Mana, who somehow manages to be both soft-spoken and forcefully intense, nearly scoffs at the suggestion. Condos? He doesn’t do condos. Others do condos. Not Mana.

“Our project is not about putting up a building,” he says, slipping off his loafers as he sits at a conference table, resting his bare feet up on its metal legs. “At the end of the day a building is a building, and it’s what you do with the building. That’s the way I’m looking at real estate. Of course, there are those who must build the office building and those who must build the condos. Who do a better job than us at that.

“Our job is building the community. It’s building businesses. It’s investing in businesses. And the building for us is a tool to an end.”

Mana has something a bit bigger in his sights: Nothing less than the transformation of Miami.

Much more than just a town overly dependent on tourism and condo-building, Miami could be a hemispheric magnet for tech talent and a new silk route for Latin American countries seeking streamlined, one-stop access to Chinese products, know-how and investment.

That is Miami’s manifest destiny, Mana says. If only it can get its act together.

“Miami doesn’t have the critical mass that New York has,” Mana says. “Miami does not have the cultural history. It doesn’t have the diversity of businesses. It doesn’t have the exchanges. It doesn’t have so many components. For the last hundred years, it keeps repeating what Henry Flagler left behind, which is the condos and more condos. And then recession comes and they sell it all, and then start again. And everything [is] around tourism in this city.

“But people, when they come here, and they want to come here, there are no jobs here. The students finishing here, they need to leave. The businesses are very spread out. Miami is not diversified. There is not enough talent here in Miami. When you bring the tech companies here, big ones, they say, ‘Yes, but we don’t have the talent to work with.’ 

And so, Mana says, he has taken on the job of changing that — though not all by himself, he’s careful to stress. Groups and initiatives ranging from the Knight Foundation to the Beacon Council’s One Community One Goal have laid groundwork for Miami’s leap into tech.

“Miami has all the ingredients to become a global tech hub. It’s across the Panama Canal. It’s a loved city by so many people. Great weather, great ports, great airports. It has so much, but somebody needs to do it.

“And so we’ve taken the initiative to create the platform for the new chapter of Miami. I know it sounds very, very ambitious. It sounds almost arrogant. But somebody needs to do it. Somebody needs to start it.

“We are not going to do it ourselves only. Wynwood is very pluralistic. There is a lot happening already in Miami. You need many horses to pull. We want to be a big horse. Without being presumptuous.

“Our project will affect the entire city of Miami, and possibly all of South Florida.”

Just because he has not started to build in Wynwood does not mean nothing’s happening, Mana says. On the contrary. He has a team working full time on the initiative, which has been a whirlwind of tours, conversations, delegations and negotiations for the past six years. He has established contacts and memoranda of understanding at the provincial government level in China. The Panamanians are interested, too. This week Mana was to accompany Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela on a trip to talk trade with his counterpart Xi Jinping in China.

“There is a lot of back and forth. It’s not that we’re sitting and waiting for someone to pick up the phone. Daily, daily, daily, daily. Hosting conventions, hosting Chinese people, educating them about Miami. Putting Miami on the table, not in terms of tourism but in terms of business,” Mana said.

His idea, in a nutshell, is this: Latin America wants and needs Chinese products and infrastructure financing. China wants agricultural produce. All that can flow through Miami and the Panama Canal without the ships needing to touch U.S. shores. The Mana Wynwood trade center would be the place for deals to be made, for bankers, for lawyers, for showrooms, for Chinese Latin American corporate headquarters. The link to Latin America would be an extension of Xi’s One Belt One Road initiative, which seeks to integrate countries in Eurasia and East Africa through infrastructure development, cultural exchanges and trade, Mana said.

On the cultural end, Mana Wynwood would also incorporate an art center, like Mana Contemporary in Jersey but with its particular local twist — the buying and selling of art. Mana wants to bring in big art auction houses. Here, too, there will be Chinese participation. Mana is integrating art by Chinese and Latin American artists into exhibits and shows during Miami Art Week in December, when he expects Chinese collectors and dealers to come to Wynwood. A show organized by the Asia Art Society of New York and Mana Contemporary will feature video and new-media works by Latin American and Asian artists, for instance.

On this Mana is emphatic: He needs Chinese participation for all this to happen.

“Without the Chinese help, we are not going to do it,” he said. “We’ve been working diligently in order to make this happen. That is why I have left these properties undeveloped. There is demand for these properties, but I want to do it for the longer vision. We cannot lease it out. It’s a long-term business plan.”

On Flagler, Mana plans a combination of renovation and new construction that he vows will respect the historic scale of the street. To lure the young techies he envisions, he will build workforce housing with small, affordable units. The city has already approved a micro-unit tower a few blocks north of Flagler that Mana plans to erect with no on-site parking.

A rendering of entrepreneur Moishe Mana’s planned micro-unit residential tower in downtown Miami. Zyscovich Architects

“Flagler Street was the hub of business of Miami, the hub that changed Miami,” Mana said. “I think we’re going to make it again the hub that will change for Miami for the future generations. My vision is to build the Silicon Valley of South America, of Miami. They desperately need digital infrastructure. That kind of stuff you can do from here. Live, work, create.”

Miamians could get an early sense of Mana’s intentions for the street during Art Week. His new Mana BSMT New Media Program will take over a block of storefronts along Flagler to present a group exhibition by 17 digital artists using the latest virtual-reality and motion-capture technologies. A former thrift store will host a fictional thrift-store installation by BSMT artist Azikiwe Mohammed.

Mana has started to flex his muscle on Flagler. At his request, the city and its Downtown Development Authority agreed to pause efforts to restart a makeover of the street, which had stalled earlier this year after the contractor was fired for poor performance. The city won’t seek new bids while Mana fleshes out an idea to repave the street with cobblestones or bricks instead of asphalt to give it more of what he calls a “neighborhood” look.

A rendering displaying entrepreneur Moishe Mana’s vision for a revitalized Flagler Street in downtown Miami. Courtesy Moishe Mana

But there’s one thing slowing Mana down, and it’s frustrating him no end. It’s “the government.” He doesn’t at first name Trump in a lengthy critique of the president, and then only once or twice. But it’s abundantly clear who he’s talking about from the start. Mana has offered to donate $1 million to a charity of Trump’s choosing for his released tax returns. He has offered to pay the legal bills of women who claim to have been sexually harassed by Trump. And Mana commissioned copies of a statue of a naked Trump, one of which he put up atop a billboard in Wynwood.

Trump’s America First rhetoric, Mana says, is turning off foreign investors and business people and creating “a huge hurdle” for his Miami vision.

“Usually, a project like this, the government gets involved,” Mana said, adding: “What the current government doesn’t understand is that the future of America is not in cutting taxes, it’s not in isolation, protectionism.

“The future of America is not in building coal industry or manufacturers of furniture. The real future of America is to do innovations of all kind of industries, trade, banking, culture. That’s the way America got rich. And all this rhetoric against immigrants and against immigration and trade and global warming, it’s really against the long-term interests of America.

“When we were looking for investors, in Dubai, in Qatar, some of them do not want to put their foot in Miami because they’ve been treated so badly in the port. I spoke with a billionaire [who] said, ‘Never in my life I put my foot here.’

“You know, America presented stability. Now we’re perceived as unstable. And the world is really confused. Should we invest in America?”

Still, Mana promises to start building soon. He expects to break ground on a couple of buildings in Wynwood “in the next three months” to show he means business. He would not specify what those buildings will be.

But, he stresses, this won’t be an overnight thing. Mana, who is 60, said this is a project for the next decade or two.

And if he’s successful, Mana — who like a certain real-estate maven turned politician, stamps his last name on most everything he owns — might lay claim to the biggest brand of all. They may have to call the place Mana Miami.