RIVIERA BEACH — After more than a decade of political wrangling and a legal battle over development at the city’s marina, the city of Riviera Beach has launched one of the largest economic development projects in any predominantly black Florida municipality.
The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) last Thursday launched a $375 million redevelopment of the city-owned marina amid calls to a dissident citizen group to end its opposition to the project.
It was unknown whether the call will be heeded. CRA and other city officials and hundreds of guests turned out to witness CRA Executive Director Tony Brown forego the traditional groundbreaking in favor of popping the cork of a champagne bottle.
That was several days before a judge issued a ruling on a request for an injunction to block the development of the prime waterfront marina district which is part of city property.
Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser did not issue her ruling until Monday. When she did, it was to deny the motion for the injunction, agreeing with the city that the ballot language for a referendum allowing for the project was not confusing.
At stake in the intense battle between the city and the Citizen’s Task Force – which is predominantly black – is a large-scale public-private sector partnership involving the city, the CRA and Viking Developers LLC to develop portions of the 26-acre marina district over 10 years, providing, the CRA says, some 1,000 jobs.
Viking Developers will invest $336 million and the CRA $39 million. The final agreement has to be approved by the City Council. The first phase, to be completed by fall 2015, will include a two-story events center with a main ballroom called Newcomb Hall, that will seat 300 people. The center also will have smaller meeting rooms for community groups, a restaurant, a café and a rooftop terrace overlooking the water.
This phase also includes a $4 million makeover to Bicentennial Park, which will include a stage for concerts, a fountain in which children can play and concessions. Improvements will also be made to the infrastructure at the marina to accommodate a proposed marina village.
It was not clear this week what the Task Force plans to do next. The group, then headed by the late community activist Emma Bates, brought together residents who spearheaded a ballot initiative in November 2010 seeking to restrict private sector involvement and it won voter approval.
Bates and her colleagues feared that, since mostly rich people with yachts will use the marina, control will slip from the city and local residents would be shut out of the benefits from the marina.
In March 2011, the city countered with its own referendum, seeking to repeal that restriction. This, too, passed, with voters reversing themselves.
The Task Force took its case to the courts, filing a lawsuit that said the ballot language of the city-sponsored referendum was confusing.
Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley sided with the Task Force and ordered the city to put the issue back on the ballot with clearer language. The city complied, holding a new referendum this March 11, which passed with 73 percent support.
The Task Force, now headed by Bessie Brown, again sued the city in yet another bid to forestall any development involving private interests. This time, though, the group lost when Sasser sided with the city.
The CRA’s Tony Brown said this latest ruling clears the way for the city to move forward with the marina’s huge capital project. He told South Florida Times the launch ceremony was held before the judge issued her ruling because he vowed a year ago the launch would happen by April 10 this year – the exact date of the launch.
Even if the judge had ruled against the city, Brown said, the ceremony would still have taken place because the CRA intended to proceed with the project even if it meant doing so without a private sector partner.
Now that the judge has ruled, Brown said in an interview Monday, “I think it’s an opportunity for all factions to come together and stop the fighting and to create jobs.”
During the champagne ceremony, Brown acknowledged the efforts of the Citizen’s Task Force, and especially Bates. Bates, in an previous interview with South Florida Times, said her doctor told her that the fight over the marina was stressing her out so much that she would die if she didn’t let it go. She died in 2011.
“She wanted companies to hire her neighbors,” Brown said, referring to Bates’ contention that big developers would not look after the “little people” if they became involved in the marina.
“Mrs. Bates’ courageous fight was about economic development,” Brown said. “At her memorial service, I promised that we would optimize the marina. We respectfully ask the Citizen’s Task Force to move on. This debate does not belong in the courtroom. It should be a fight to eradicate poverty. If you love this city, fight for us to rid it of poverty. I see the project as an economic boost that the city needs. I see this as a win-win situation. This is a new day for Riviera Beach.”
Council Chairwoman Judy Davis also referred to the dispute leading up to the celebration. “It’s been a long road to break ground on a big, bold marina – the People’s Marina,” she said. “I’m ecstatic.”
Councilman Bruce Guyton said the residents have mandated change in a city known for crime instead of its potential as an international destination. “I returned to office because I felt I could make positive change,” said Guyton. “We’re about to change the image of our city with a $375 million redevelopment make-over.”
Bob Healey Sr., chairman and CEO of Viking Developers, which will oversee the addition of restaurants, retailers and additional investments to the marina, described Riviera Beach as a diamond in the rough. “Nobody’s gonna stop us now,” he said, after shaking up the bottle of champagne before Brown popped the cork.