Watson Island marketing deal stalls contract between Miami, Chalk's Airways
By Paola Iuspa
The rights to market Watson Island and its planned aviation center are delaying the signing of an agreement between the City of Miami, the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority and tenant Chalk's Ocean Airways.
The seaplane company is threatening to sue the city and authority if a 1998 agreement allowing the company to maintain its business on Watson Island is not signed by Friday. After 92 years on the island, Chalk's says it will sue - but it is not clear what the company would try to gain.
Although Chalk's owner Jim Confalone thinks the city wants his company to stay on Watson Island, his attorney said, he wants a deal - in the works for two years - finalized. She said Mr. Confalone will take legal action if a 30-year contract is not signed by Friday.
"The approval of the document is essential," said Vicky Garcia-Toledo, attorney for Chalk's. "Timing is crucial. My client is trying to avoid further legal actions."
At issue is a two-year-old deal with the city and its sports authority that calls for Chalk's to remain as part of planned aviation center for the island. If the center is not built, Chalks would build its own terminal.
City commissioners have approved the agreement, but the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority also must give it an OK since being named manager in 1997 of the future $12.5 million Greater Miami Visitor & Aviation Center.
In addition to office space and terminal for Chalk's, the proposed center will hold new offices for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the sports authority, a small museum and a regional helicopter base, Ms. Garcia-Toledo said.
"Chalk's would be one of the many tenants using the terminal if it is built," she said.
But the 30-year agreement would also make the sports authority responsible for marketing the aviation center.
Chalk's would have to pay an annual fee for that service, said Ferey Kian, authority director of finance. The seaplane firm has complained to the city, as master landlord, about the authority's proposed marketing charge.
Last week, city administrators said the authority needs to propose a fee acceptable to Chalk's and other future tenants before the city will approve the authority's marketing plan. Mr. Kian said Tuesday the authority is revising the proposal for the marketing fee, which would be included in the pending contract.
In return for marketing the island as an entertainment destination, the sports authority has offered to pay $800,000 in work required by the Federal Aviation Administration in preparation for the planned Visitor & Aviation Center, said Laura Billberry, city director of asset management. The FAA, in June, said that the western side of Watson Island needs $1.6 million in improvements for the new uses. The other half of the money needed for the work, she said, is to be covered by grants.
"The improvement would be used by Chalk's and other tenants that would lease space" when the aviation center is built, Ms. Garcia-Toledo said.
An early draft of the marketing proposal includes all tenants on the island.
"Watson Island, with all its components, would be promoted as a whole," Mr. Kian said, referring to other projects planned to go elsewhere on the island, such as the Miami Children's Museum, the Parrot Jungle and a planned mixed-use development with hotels, a mega-yacht marina and retail. "We would create a unifying view of the island. It would require a service code and dress code matching with the overall picture."
But the authority's board is still trying to reach an agreement on a marketing strategy, Ms. Garcia-Toledo said. She said the authority has until Friday to approve the contract with Chalk's.
Since 1919, the airline has been the only regularly scheduled amphibious air service in the world, said Mr. Confalone, who bought the former Chalk's International in 1999. During the '40s and '50s, he said, 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.
Ms. Garcia-Toledo said Mr. Confalone was interested in expanding the Chalk's fleet and buying larger planes, but securing any kind of financing was difficult without a contract for the site.
For the company, which settled on the manmade Watson Island a few years after it was created, suing local government would be nothing new. Chalk's sued in 1988 when the city tried to evict all tenants from Watson Island. Chalk's dropped the suit after the city allowed it to stay on the site for 10 years. In 1998, the parties met again at the negotiating table, Ms. Garcia-Toledo said, and drew up the contract now pending between Chalk's, the city, and the sports and exhibition authority.