Naked Politics

Rickenbacker Marina redevelopment stalls. Miami might throw out proposals — again.

Rickenbacker Marina
Rickenbacker Marina Courtesy of Rickenbacker Marina

The drawn-out battle over the future of the Rickenbacker Marina is the latest example of big plans languishing for years in contentious public bids, lawsuits and politics.

The three-year quest to mount a $100 million redevelopment of the city-owned marina on Virginia Key, including one failed solicitation and a protracted second bid, inched toward a resolution Thursday — but a decisive vote was again pushed back indefinitely. The deal, which would ultimately require voter approval because the city would lease public waterfront land to a private operator, is no longer expected to be on the November ballot.

Yet while the decision to choose one of two bitterly opposed teams was deferred for the 18th time, commissioners signaled enough displeasure with the process that they might again throw out the whole bid and start over.

An hours-long hearing showcased theatrics, exasperation and indecisiveness that resulted in zero progress, other than the suggestion the city might go back to the drawing board.

The only true decision was to indefinitely postpone a vote on awarding the deal to Virginia Key LLC, the top-ranked team composed of Miami Beach-based RCI Marine Group and Suntex Marinas. The second place team — the current marina operator, led by Biscayne Marine Partners principal Aabad Melwani — again made its case against its opponents.

Both teams hurled accusations at each other while politicians struggled to sort fact from fiction on matters ranging from legal problems of business partners in Argentina to whether one of the groups had ties to real estate developments in Cuba. The conversation strayed even further from initial allegations that the RCI Group had submitted flawed financial figures and disqualified itself by including land in its proposal that was outside the scope of the solicitation.

At one point, a lawyer representing the current marina operator handed the city clerk $500,000 in cashier’s checks — back rent owed to the city as part of an agreement for Melwani to stay on the property until the solicitation is resolved. Attorney Miguel De Grandy handed commissioners the stack of checks for inspection before leaving them with the clerk.

The attorney for the opposing team, Al Dotson, insisted his clients did not have business in Cuba. He said his team could replace a proposed subcontractor who admitted to ignoring its responsibility to protect endangered coral in Biscayne Bay on a previous project. He said the inclusion of a defunct company on the project team was the result of a typo. Legal interns displayed a series of poster boards with images of straw men pasted over the numerous objections brought by the opposing team — a tactic Dotson employed at a similar hearing in July 2016 where the first proposals to overhaul the Rickenbacker Marina were thrown out.

Both bidding teams have spent almost two years trudging through a bid protest and court fight, which included multiple appeals that all ended in favor of the RCI Marina Group. When it came time for commissioners to make a call Thursday, they didn’t move anything forward or kill the deal.

After several questions for both sides, Commissioner Joe Carollo expressed doubt about both teams. Commissioner Keon Hardemon unsuccessfully moved to approve the administration’s recommendation to select the RCI Marina team. Commissioner Ken Russell tried to convince his colleagues to throw out the whole process and start from scratch for the third time. Commissioner Manolo Reyes rebuffed Russell’s motion because he wanted to know more about what would happen next if they rejected both bids.

Ultimately, commissioners told City Manager Emilio Gonzalez to present options at a future meeting. Toward the end of Thursday’s meeting, Gonzalez offered his take on the day’s discussion.

“We’re looking silly here,” he said, adding that he would implement whatever the commission decided but he stood by his administration’s recommendation.

During the debate, Commissioner Wilfredo “Willy” Gort made a prediction that, in Miami, seems like a safe bet.

“Whatever happens today in here, it’s going to go to court,” he said.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, ranging from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He attended the University of Florida.