Watson Island businesses spurn Miami's eviction notices
By Susan Stabley
Several longtime Watson Island businesses, facing eviction, are refusing to leave to make way for redevelopment.
According to Miami city officials, three businesses ordered to leave Watson Island by Feb. 28 to make way for the proposed Flagstone Development, a hotel and retail mixed-use project, have not moved.
The city sent letters terminating docking privileges for the business owners at the Watson Island Marina, including Casablanca and D'Armas fish markets.
According to the letters, the city must close the marina for construction that is part of redevelopment of the 86-acre, manmade island that connects downtown Miami and Miami Beach.
The city has an ambitious campaign to lease the island's northwestern quadrant for 45 years for a commercial development, with an option for two 15-year renewals. A referendum a year ago approved a lease of 13.4 acres for 45 years to Flagstone Properties to build the $281 million Island Gardens, which includes two high-end hotels, shops, restaurants and a mega-yacht marina.
Just last week, Miami commissioners a 30-year lease with two 10-year options for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau to make its home on the west end of the isle at a yet-to-be built aviation & visitors center.
"We're about 65% done on architectural drawings," said Bureau President and CEO William Talbert III.
No date has been set for groundbreaking, though Mr. Talbert said June has been established as the deadline for the city to evict a bait shop that rests in the middle of the footprint for the proposed visitors center.
The city must evict by June 30 the Watson Island Fuel & Fishing Supplies - a 33-year-old business. If the city doesn't free up the site, the bureau can cancel the agreement. The bureau can also give the city an extension on that deadline to Dec. 30.
The bait shop's occupancy rights were terminated effective Aug. 31, 2002, according to city documents. The matter is the subject of litigation, city officials said.
"We've been trying to negotiate, but we're having a lot of trouble," said owner Martin Tritt.
He said his business could be incorporated into plans for a visitors center. He says his family-owned store is the only local place on the island where boaters can fuel up late at night and buy live bait or a quick snack.
"Why are they so adamant about getting rid of us?" he asked. "Why can't they move their building further east?"
Mr. Tritt said he has also enlisted attorney Victor Rones and has filed an appeal to stay put.
If the bureau doesn't build the center, Chalk's Ocean Airways, formerly Chalk's Airlines, is required to construct a structure, according to seaplane company owner Jim Confalone.
When Mr. Confalone took over the company in August 1999, a suit between Chalk's and the city was in a standstill. Chalk's sued in 1988 when the city tried to evict all tenants from Watson Island but dropped the suit after the city allowed it to stay on the site for 10 years.
"I inherited this problem," said Mr. Confalone "My idea was to run a business, not a lawsuit."
Chalk's is the oldest airline in the world, existing since 1919 and outlasting many larger companies like Eastern Airlines and Pan American Airways. Its longevity garnered a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. During the '40s and '50s, passengers such as the Wright brothers, Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn flew Chalk's on their way to the islands in the Caribbean. Many view the seaplanes as having the importance to Miami that cable cars have to San Francisco.
"All based right here in Miami and have been at Watson Island since the early beginnings," he said. "Chalk's never paid rent the whole time."
It was the fact that Chalk's didn't pay rent that allowed Mr. Confalone to win a settlement with the city. Since acquiring Chalk's, he has expanded the business from a single seaplane to 15 aircraft that average 26 flights a day during the summer. He estimates business increased 400% since he took over.
A contract is now in place, he said. He declined to disclose financial details other than that Chalk's has a 30-year lease to stay on the island with options for an additional 20 years. His company also has the rights to provide the food service at the center.
But even though the bureau has inked a deal final with the city and Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, Mr. Confalone said he isn't holding his breath.
"It's been on and off like a yo-yo," he said of the plans to redevelop the island and bring in the bureau headquarters.
Since 1997, the bureau, the sports authority and the city have been in negotiations to build and operate the visitors center. An arm of the city promoting and underwriting community events, the sports authority would act as building landlord.
Mr. Confalone said he expects three possible scenarios: Things to continue as they are, the bureau to build a building, or the bureau to drop out and Chalk's forced to step in.
"We would have to build a facility of our own at a tremendous expense," he said.
It wouldn't be what is proposed now, but it would still create a major capital expense, he said.
"What's going to happen here?" said Mr. Confalone. "Is the bureau going to move in or are they going to go to Miami Beach?"
Although there have been many attempts to redevelop Watson Island after its master plan was drafted in the early 1980s, none progressed until recently. Now, Parrot Jungle Island has broken ground for a $47 million park that is to open by July. A Miami Children's Museum is under way as well as the resurrection of the island's Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden.