RIVIERA BEACH — They have suffered a double whammy, losing badly in a referendum and in the courts. But a group of residents adamantly opposed to private sector involvement in the development of the city-owned marina say the fight is not yet over.
Leaders of the Citizens Task Force say they are in talks with their attorney to decide on their next step. They say they are not against redevelopment of the city-owned Riviera Beach Municipal Marina; they just want it to be fair to all residents of the predominantly black waterfront city.
Bessie Brown, president and chairwoman of the task force, said her group wants to make sure that all citizens have a voice in the redevelopment.
“Our objective is to make sure the majority of the citizens are fully engaged and have a fair voice. As of now, they definitely do not have a fair voice,” said, Brown, a 50-year resident of the city and a former municipal worker.
Maria Cole, a former dentist who is the parliamentarian and a spokeswoman for the group, has thrown her full support behind its efforts.
“We’re still going to hold their feet to the fire. We will use every option that we have,” Cole said. “We’re not going away.”
Cole lives in Juno Beach, a predominantly white enclave in the northern part of Palm Beach County, about 20 minutes from Riviera Beach. She developed organizational skills when she worked for the Obama campaign in 2007 in five states, including Florida, which brought her in close contact with Riviera Beach.
“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Whose interests are being heard?’ Why aren’t we being heard? We try to give voice to people who are not being heard,” Cole said.
City officials insist that residents have been heard. They cite a March 11 referendum in which 73 percent of voters approved redevelopment of the marina with involvement of private interests.
But the task force counters that the referendum did not fully reflect the wishes of residents. Out of 35,000 registered voters, only about 4,000 showed up at the polls. The task force added that many of the residents they represent stayed home because they were confused. That was the reason, the group said, for its lawsuits claiming the ballot language was confusing.
“People told us they were confused,” Cole said. Judge Meenu Sasser recently ruled against the group’s challenge to the ballot language, paving the way for the proposed $375 million marina make-over. But another judge, Glenn Kelley, backed the task force in an earlier lawsuit and ordered the ballot language changed.
The task force, which has about 40 members, has been at odds with the city and its CRA at least from 2010. That was when the group obtained enough signatures for a petition demanding a referendum seeking to restrict development at the marina. A majority of the 8,800 voters who came out backed the restriction.
The city was in talks then with Rybovich SuperYachts, a company owned by Wayne Huizenga Jr., son of billionaire entrepreneur Wayne Huizenga Sr., on a proposed business venture.
The late community activist Emma Bates, who then led the task force, galvanized strong opposition against the Rybovich plan. Bates told South Florida Times in a 2010 interview that she was afraid the “little people” were being shut out of the proposal. Residents overwhelmingly sided with her.
Andrei Rolle, Bates’ godson, who is president of a construction and craft workers union, says he joined the task force. “I’m here to represent her wishes,” he said. Cole said that Ryobovich, with its planned super yacht repair center, would have brought pollution and toxins to the city. “Rybovich wanted to create a toilet bowl out of the Riviera Beach waterfront,” Cole said. “They still intend to do that.”
Huizenga eventually gave up his fight for space at the marina, instead settling for a nearby location on property he already owned. Cole is predicting that the city will still somehow make room for Huizenga’s company at the marina.
But for now the task force has shifted its efforts to the current redevelopment plan which has been made possible by the latest referendum result and court ruling.
The new proposal calls for a large-scale public-private sector venture involving the city and its CRA and Viking Developers LLC – which will serve as master developer of the project. Viking will develop sections of the 26-acre marina property, investing $336 million. The CRA will come up with the remaining $39 million.
Judy Davis, chairwoman of the City Council and the CRA, said Riviera Beach currently gets about $1.3 million annually from dock rentals, leases and goods and services but it costs more than that to operate the marina.
“The redevelopment will turn that around, making our marina profitable for the city, while, at the same time, providing new opportunities and new options for our residents,” she said.
The first phase includes a two-story events center overlooking the waterfront, a $4 million makeover of Bicentennial Park that will equip it with a stage for concerts and, eventually, other retail shops and restaurants. This phase will be completed by 2015 but the entire project will be spread over 10 years and is projected to create 1,000 jobs.
One condition of the project is that any contractor working on the redevelopment will be required to have a 20 percent apprenticeship workforce. The purpose is to provide training that will allow younger residents not only to get a job but also to learn a trade and launch a career.
Task force members are skeptical of the plan. “Riviera Beach has a history of not following through on what they say,” Cole said. “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. I don’t want to hear people [just] make promises anymore.”
Rolle is also doubtful. “Over a 10-year period, sure they’ll go through 1,000 jobs. People will be hired and fired. I’d rather see the sermon than hear one. Who’s opposed to building their own community? We’re not. But the task force was never brought to the table. We want our citizens to get the jobs. How many times have people from the outside come in and gotten the jobs? Why are we backing something that has no guarantees?”
Is there a chance that the two sides will come together and work out their differences? Cole doesn’t see that happening unless things change. She accuses the city and the CRA of not being transparent.
“If we had clarity, honesty and transparency, we would partner with them and we would be their biggest cheerleaders,” she said. “We want them to be accountable,” said Cole.