Nobody in Wynwood seems to know exactly what Andrew Suarez does for Mosihe Mana, the billionaire owner of the large chunks of downtown Miami and Wynwood, including Mana Wynwood, a convention and meeting space that I was told recently Suarez now claims to part owner of, but everyone knows that he’s the Mayor cousin, and that blood is thicker than water.
My first introduction to cousin Andrew and the confluence of business and politics currently a subject of considerable debate and concern in Wynwood came during a lunch meeting I had with a local lobbyist last year who shared with me a portion of an email from a person who at the time was trying to open a business in Wynwood that included this sentence:
“We were visited by Andrew Suarez, the mayor’s cousin,
and also Vinnie Bettencourt, the head of Film and TV for
the city (previously Asst City Manager), who both said
that they want to help us open and get the best liquor/
warrant scenario possible.”
It seems that Suarez and Betancourt’s – the writer of the letter had misspelled Betancourt’s name – offers of help were a Miami version of being visited by a couple Welcome Wagon representatives, only instead of passing out coupons and advertisements they were offering their services as inside fixers.
Because I couldn’t approach the business owner without compromising my friend I filed the information away and started paying more attention to allegations and rumors that came my way about how a laundry list of questionable or illegal activities was going on in Wynwood, including Special Event Permits issued by Betancourt that raise serious questions of whether he and/or his staff are grossly incompetent – one of his staff is the mother of a senior staff member of Code Compliance – or are issuing permits based on reasons that warrant an investigation by the FDLE.
Although some of these activities were the result of the kinds of growing pains a district like Wynwood could expect to go through as part of its rapid development from an area of empty warehouses to a dynamic entertainment and arts district, what was beginning to concern and alarm some folks, especially the business people who had invested millions of dollars into making Wynwood into what it has become today, was the lack of response by the city in dealing with some of the more outrageous examples of misbehavior.
One of those business people was David Lombardi, who by his own account started investing in Wynwood in 2001, and who along with Tony Goldman could be considered one of the founding fathers of the area.
Lombardi is a guy who has invested millions in Wynwood, and because of this I was surprised when I discovered the below letter in a packet of documents I obtained through a public record request I recently made to the Wynwood BID.
The letter was written last June, and in it Lombardi complained to a number of city officials about what he perceived to be problems arising out of the failure of city departments like Code Compliance to do their job.
Lombardi was a well-connected insider, and the discovery of this letter was not so much a revelation as it was a confirmation of stories that I’d begun hearing from others that the administration of Mayor Francis Suarez and City Manager Emilio Gonzalez was both incompetent and unresponsive to the needs of business people trying to negotiate their way through the labyrinth of twists, turns and road blocks that consumed the time and money of business people in order to get anything done in the city.
Several weeks later, Lombardi wrote another letter to commiserate with attorney Michael Fogarty, then a tenant at Wynwood 25, the luxury rental property developed by the Related Group, who for a year had been complaining about the noise coming from several nightclubs blocks away, without getting any response or help from the city.
Lombardi’s letter did not stop Fogarty from deciding that he’s had enough of Wynwood, and soon after he departed.
His departure however, did not stop the noise complaints, and in copies of hundreds of emails that I obtained between Manny Gonzalez, the Wynwood BID’s Executive Director, various city officials including the City Manager Emilio Gonzalez, the Director of Code Compliance Adele Valencia, Zoning Director Joesph Ruiz, Police Commander Dan Kerr, Tony Albelo and his representatives at SWARM, the entertainment production company that pretty much controls all such activities in Wynwood, along Moishe Mana’s representatives who have partnered with SWARM as a venue for concerts revealed that in addition to noise complaints, a laundry list of other alleged code and zoning violations, including businesses operating without legal permits, illegal construction of businesses on properties requiring a Temporary Use Permit, Special Event Permits containing phony information and even allegations that some permits contained the forged signatures of Vincent Betancourt.
Last but not least were complaints by several business owners who based on credible evidence believed that at least one of Mana’s employees was openly engaged in conspiring to illegally compete against them.
As the Cubans like to say, it was all one big arroz con mango, and while in Miami everyone likes to pride themselves on how unique our kind of public corruption is, the truth of the matter is that what is going on in Wynwood is pretty much an example of the time honored practice of taking advantage of weak enforcement, corruptible public officials in order to take the money and run.
PERMITS? WHAT PERMITS?
WE DON’T NEED NO STINK’EN PERMITS
In starting and operating a business there are two things that are more important than just about everything everything else: Time and money.
If you run out of one, it’s often because you’ve run out of the other.
At the last Special City Commission meeting on January 17th, held to discuss a plan submitted by FIU to deal with the city’s affordable housing problems, several developers and contractors experienced in dealing with the city spoke about the persistent problems they and others constantly faced in order to get permits approved, and their projects built.
It wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last time that people knowledgable about the inner workings of Miami city government show up at a commission meeting to voice their complaints and concerns about these issues, but unfortunately as long as incompetent people continue to be hired as administrators or as long as you can buy off the mayor and/or city commissioners with $5,000, $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 or even $50,000 campaign donations made to their PAC’s, nothing will change when it comes to streamlining the policies and procedures that everyone acknowledges make Miami one of the most difficult cities in the country to open or operate a business.
Cities that operate with the kinds of bureaucratic and procedural road blocks like Miami has are often the result of politicians with the power to set policy making decisions that are based on creating a system that benefits them and their deep pocket donors at the expense of the little guys just trying to chase their dream of operating their own business.
In the end it’s all about money, and in Wynwood there is currently a lot of money sloshing around as various players and interest groups focus on the BILLION DOLLARS of new commercial and residential construction projects projected to be built in the next few years.
That development, and the changes that it will bring are at the center of the current struggle between the first and second generation of investors and entrepreneurs who early on made a decision to self-regulate themselves through the creation of a business improvement district (BID) so as to have some control over the brick and mortar development, and the quick buck wildcatters who came in behind them, much like wildcatters back in the day who came into gold rush communities to operate the honky-tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and who now that Wynwood has gained some international acclaim not only are ready to take credit for the zizzle that contributed to the growth, but also seeing the handwriting on the wall that with the new real estate development that will change the dynamics in the district see the hand writing on the wall and are working to pull as much money out before the changes force them to accept the fact that their run has ended.
To appreciate how all of this is playing out, and how the city’s policies and procedures and even legal opinons are being ignored, one only needs to look at how the issues of excess noise described in the emails above continued to be handled.
NOISE? WHAT NOISE?
THAT’S NOT NOISE, THAT’S THE SOUND OF MONEY
Wynwood is not the first district in the city of Miami to have experienced loud noise as a result of nightclubs and bars catering to a young, hip crowd with hormones and money.
Before Wynwood there was Coconut Grove whose clubs and bars catered to the college students at the University of Miami, and the Club District just north of downtown which had a half-dozen or so clubs that stayed open all night and blared music from rooftops that kept the folks living in the high-rise condos popping up along Biscayne Boulevard in a state of almost constant aggravation.
The frustration of these condo owners didn’t go on for months, it went on for years, and like Wynwood, the club owners ignored, bribed and did any and everything they could, including so I was told, managing to get an incriminating photograph of an elected official in the men’s room to use as leverage.
In the end though, the folks in the condos put so much pressure on the city administration that the City Attorney’s Office was forced to issue an “Interpretation of City Code Chapter 36-4 and 36-5, that dealt with excessive noise violations, especially loud music.
Here is that interpretation from Assistant City Attorney Rachel Dooley written in 2017.
Pretty simple and straight forward, right.
It took a while for this interpretation to sink in, but sink in it did, and the noise levels in the Club District took a dramatic dive to reasonable levels.
You would think that after a year of email complaints of excessive noise from residents like Michael Fogarty and others, as well as the letters written by David Lombardi, and complaints from other business owners and residents, that this interpretation should and would have been applied in Wynwood, and that the Mayor, the City Manager, the City Attorney, the Zoning Director and the Code Compliance Director would not only have embraced this interpretation, but made it a point to convey their embrace to all of the Wynwood bar and club owners.
After repeated and unsuccessful efforts to have Code Compliance do more that issue Ticket Warning Letters to repeat offenders, followed in some cases by Ticket Violations, and in other cases by just walking away after being threatened by lawsuits.
Because of the city’s reluctance to strongly enforce either the code or the interpretation of the noise ordinance, especially the 100 foot rule – Manny Gonzalez, the Executive Director of the Wynwood BID looked around for some other way to force compliance.
He discovered that one of the things that the original members of the business owners and investors group that created the BID had done was to create a Neighborhood Revitalization District (NRD) Plan, and that based on that plan any and all establishments that featured outdoor entertainment had to get a Warrant from the city’s Planning and Zoning Department.
On August12, 2019, fortified with this knowledge, Gonzalez sent an email out to all of the concerned parties that explained the implications of the requirements that were placed on business owners who had sought a warrant, and on the fact that a “warrant is a privilege and not a right.”
What Gonzalez did not know when he sent out that letter, and only learned afterwards when he sought to obtain copies of all the warrants issued to Wynwood business owners who operated businesses that sold alcohol outdoors, was that there didn’t seem to be an accurate list that anyone in the city could provide him that containedthat information.
And so from August to November of last year, the beat as they say, went on.
On November 7th, after Adele Valencia, the Director of Code Compliance told the the Wynwood Board that the city was being sued over the provisions of Chapter 36-5, the decision was made to seek a legal opinion from the city on the validity of the ordinance as it relates to the issuance of warrants.
WynwoodBID Legal Opinion by al_crespo on Scribd
On February 3, 2020, I sent City Attorney Victoria Mendez an email asking her on the status of the above requested legal opinion.
She has neither acknowledged or replied to my request.
Welcome to Miami, Bitches!
This was originally published on Crespogramnews.com and was republished here with the permission of the Author.
Al Crespo is photojournalist, author and blogger. He’s been an ardent and high-profile critic of Miami City & County governments for decades, and has chastised area news media, as well.