Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Forget the manatees, save our precious millionaires

I knew it. I sensed it even before I saw last week’s alarming headline. Another iconic creature has been added to South Florida’s list of endangered species.

Those of us living here had no need for a demographic study. We knew that critters long identified with our region were dwindling right along with manatees, panthers, black bears, wood storks and sea turtles.

For me, it became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong with our local ecology when I could cross Biscayne Boulevard without a close and frightening encounter with a speeding Bentley. Or when I dined along Las Olas Boulevard without encountering a wizened ancient with hair plugs and an Audemars Piguet watch entertaining a surgically enhanced 20-something.

Something was missing from life in South Florida. I could go days without hearing the mating call once so ubiquitous to our community — some bumptious dude revving the engine of his 1,200 HP Bugatti Veyron. It was as if an abstruse force — I don’t know, maybe global warming — had altered our very cultural identity. Like we were devolving into Tampa or Orlando or Jacksonville.

Now, we’ve got hard numbers to back up those visceral suspicions. We’re losing our precious millionaires.

Last week, Phoenix Affluent Market, a research firm that tracks global wealth, delivered the dismal news, reporting that the number of millionaire households in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties had fallen by 9,000. The marketing firm found that we had fallen from 111,679 households with a million bucks or more in “investable assets” (not including home equity) in 2012 to just 102,593 last year. What made this finding even more depressing was that millionaire households were decreasing even as the overall number of households in the three-county region increased from 2.1 million to 2.2 million.

The Sun Sentinel, picking up on the Phoenix study, suggested that a number of South Florida’s millionaires had migrated to The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in Central Florida. If true, that’s not much consolation. Everyone knows that The Villages is the place where the rich go to die.

Ironically, we’ve done a lot more to nurture millionaires than other endangered species. Just last week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to allow hunters to stalk Florida’s last 3,000 black bears. Thankfully, South Florida millionaires (opulent australi floridanus) weren’t on the agenda.

Even while we’ve destroyed the nesting grounds of the wood stork and the sea turtle, we’ve created new habitats for millionaires. My colleague Nicholas Nehamas described how South Florida condo designers have created elaborate environments they hope will lure the affluent back to South Florida.

These high-rise nests come with salons and cigar lounges and fancy restaurants and yoga studios and bars and bank vaults and exotic pools that afford millionaires the illusion that they’re swimming in the very sky, up there with tennis courts and soccer fields and running trails. And, of course, the rich will be able to drive their cars into private elevators and park in glass “sky garages,” so guests can admire their host’s ostentatious automotive tastes from the living room sofas.

Miami has one condo tower with interiors designed by Pininfarina, the Italian designers better known for sculpting Ferraris and Maseratis and another contrived by Porsche. What more could millionaires need from us?

Yet their numbers dwindle.

It’s not clear what’s wiping them out. Other endangered species have been decimated by exotic imports, but I’m not sure the decline of the richies can be blamed on giant African snails, Cuban tree frogs or Burmese pythons (though the latter possibility conjures up a tasty image.)

It could be that the wealthy are basically herding animals. After hearing that Lil Wayne put his Miami crib on the market for $18 million, and Shakira offered up her place on Miami Beach for $13 million, and LeBron James decided to sell his 12,000-square-foot nest (complete with theater and wine cellar) for $17 million, our leftovers are sensing a mass millionaire out-migration and don’t want to be left behind.

That’s one theory. But maybe another exotic species has indeed expropriated the millionaire’s territory, the way brown curlytail lizards have been pushing out South Florida’s geckos. Perhaps millionaires are getting superseded by the multimillionaires. Wealth-X, a Singapore-based research firm that tracks the wildly affluent (as opposed to just millionaires), reported that the population of the super-rich — individuals with assets of $30 million or more — was surging in Florida.

While mere millionaires dwindled in number, the ranks of the ultra-rich rose by 11.7 percent in Florida. Wealth-X counted 4,710 in the high-end category.

Well, no wonder. We’re giving over a big chunk of Watson Island to a marina that can accommodate 50 mega-yachts up to 400 feet long (figure their worth at about a million a foot.) Fisher Island, the wealthiest ZIP Code in the country, is adding a couple of towers that will go for as much as $33 million a condo. A Dutch company is working on something called Amillarah Private Islands — a community of 29 floating 10,000-foot islands, bobbing out there on Maule Lake off North Miami Beach. Each private island comes with a villa and a private beach.

Prices start at $12.5 million but ... really ... only a common millionaire would need to ask.

Amillarah faces some significant regulatory hurdles, but the developer could no doubt win public support by couching the project as needed habitat for an endangered species.

South Florida may profess affection for manatees and panthers and sea turtles, but when it comes down to it, we’ll do whatever it takes to save our beloved millionaires.

The April 19 Fred Grimm column on the purported out-migration of millionaires from South Florida since 2012 should have credited the Sun-Sentinel for compiling the local statistics from a larger study by Phoenix Marketing International.

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