Sidney Levin could sell wind to a hurricane — or, more accurately, sell a hurricane to the world.
Just weeks after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade in 1992, the chairman-elect of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau assured the rest of the nation in an ad campaign that the area’s beaches, “cleaned by the winds and renourished by fresh, white sand, are more inviting than ever.”
“Miami’s tempo is upbeat, as usual,” read one advertisement that was carefully crafted by the county’s economic arm. “Just weeks after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami, the Travel & Tourism Industry is standing tall.”
As the ad campaign coincided with a separate fundraising effort to help battered areas, using photos of the devastation to evoke sympathy, Levin and acting chairman Merrett Stierheim received some criticism.
But they were fundraising in their own right. Attracting tourism dollars to the area was their job — and they did it well.
Levin was a co-founding chair of the economic-advisory group the Miami-Dade Beacon Council and a founding father of the county’s marketing and economic-development strategies.
Levin died unexpectedly Thursday of a heart attack at age 83 near his home in Weston.
His friends say the Baltimore native made it his life’s mission to strengthen the metro area’s economic position locally, nationally, and worldwide. He strove to bring jobs and investment to his community through a comprehensive economic-development plan, and he communicated his vision with sobering clarity, a diplomatic tact, and a listen-first approach.
“If he wasn’t heading the parade, he was in the front row,” said Stierheim, a longtime friend and former longtime Miami-Dade County manager. “He wasn’t demonstrative at all. Never raised his voice, but when he spoke it had power. He was just a master at grasping situations and giving good advice.”
With his work in the business-development sector, government, and advertising, Levin found a way to leave his mark on nearly every facet of Florida’s economy. Under then-Gov. Bob Graham, he was the state’s secretary of commerce and toured Florida, offering guidance and support to local economic councils.
He was an executive at Florida Power & Light, the former chairman of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, and chaired the Miami-Dade County Commission’s charter-review committee in 2002.
“His footprint is just about on every organization in this community,” said longtime friend Stuart Blumberg, the retired president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Association. “He leaves a huge void.”
Levin was a partner at the advertising firm Beber Silverstein & Partners, which won a highly sought bid to create Florida’s advertising campaign for 1986-87.
The campaign’s theme was “Florida. The rules are different here,” and it included certain requirements, or “rules,” to enjoy the Sunshine State.
“When you vacation in Florida, you are not permitted to act your age.”
“You must get suntanned in a place you’ve never been tan before.”
“You may not take any more than 437 snapshots of your kids during any one-hour period.”
But for all his career highlights, Levin was perhaps best known for his humble and soft-spoken demeanor, which served as a salve to his colleagues and friends toiling in a high-pressured world.
“For a man who could have stood on top of a table and say, ‘Here I am and here’s what I’ve done,’ that wasn’t him,” Blumberg said. “He didn’t want to be known as the ‘father of,’ or the ‘creator of.’ He would say, ‘I just love my community, and I’m doing what I want.’ “
Blumberg commented that it was rare to see a go-getter who had reached such heights while keeping a firm grasp on his principles and not attracting animus.
“I don’t ever remember anyone in my career or my lifetime that didn’t have an enemy in the world,” Blumberg said. “His theory, he was an ultimate consensus-builder, his glass was always full. Always.”
Stierheim called him a sage “sounding board” for all of his ideas, good and bad.
“I really never made a major decision without talking to Sid,” said Stierheim, who insisted that the record show Levin was the consummate “mensch,” or well-principled individual. “Best friends seems trite. I call him like a brother, soul mate, call it what you may.”
Away from his work, Levin was known to enjoy an odd cocktail: a Crown Royal whiskey on the rocks with onions inside. He obsessed over lamb chops and Miami’s sports teams, often checking scores on his phone while at dinner with friends.
Blumberg ate a robust meal with Levin on Tuesday night at Prime Italian on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. Levin had bronzini, Caesar salad, and ice cream.
“I always thought he was invincible, that nothing could ever happen to Sid,” Blumberg said.
Merwin Sigale, an associate professor at Miami Dade College and a former Miami Herald editor, covered Levin during the 1980s as the business editor of The Miami News. He said Levin was known for his support of business development in the county.
“He was a committed and enthusiastic advocate of Miami-Dade County as a superb site for companies to relocate their headquarters or establish regional operations, as well as encouraging companies already here to expand,” Sigale wrote in an email.
Manny Rodriguez, a former regional director of external affairs in Miami Dade County for FPL, said Levin was his “intellectual father” and a “mentor.”
“I thank God for having enjoyed Sid’s friendship all these years,” he said in an email. “He opened my horizon and made me a better-rounded individual. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity of having dinner with Sid last Tuesday, March 5th, our monthly friends get-together. We had a nice dinner, a couple of drinks, a bottle of wine and a fine discussion of current events.”
To his family, Levin was a guiding light.
“Our dad was earnestly there for all of us who loved him so dearly,” the family said in a statement. “He was absolutely our North Star.”
Levin is survived by his wife, Sally; sister Beverly Binder; children Aimee Levin Weiner and Ira Levin; grandchildren Ian Kay and Emily Kay; and great-grandson Oliver John Kay, who considered him “Papa the Great.”
A memorial service will be held at Lakeside Memorial Park and Funeral Home in Miami-Dade at 11:30 a.m. Friday.