Miami orders marine businesses to move for new Watson Island projects
By Susan Stabley
At least three businesses have been told they must leave Watson Island by Friday to make way for the proposed Flagstone Development, while others hang in limbo, waiting to find to what happens when the City of Miami begins to build a regional visitors & aviation center.
The city sent letters terminating docking privileges for three business owners at Watson Island Marina, on the island's west side. The letters said the city must close the marina for construction in redeveloping the 86-acre manmade island between downtown Miami and Miami Beach.
George Sanchez, an owner of Casablanca Fish Market, said it's an expulsion order he has been given several times during the last nine years and he has no plans to leave.
Although there have been many attempts to redevelop the island after its master plan was drafted in the early 1980s, none progressed until recently. Parrot Jungle Island broke ground for a new $47 million park that will open by July. In addition to the Greater Miami Regional Visitors & Aviation Center, a Miami Children's Museum is under way as well as the resurrection of the island's Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden, first built in 1961 and destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew. The $1.2 million garden will be relocated to an acre east of the new Parrot Jungle.
The city also has an ambitious campaign to lease the island's northwest 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. These future businesses will also be added to the city's Downtown Development Authority taxing jurisdiction, in which businesses are taxed an extra half mil in property taxes a year.
Under the proposal, Flagstone would pay the city at least $1 million a year during construction, expected to take 3 years. In this scenario, the project could have a value of $24 million to $74 million in lease and tax revenue.
Once it opens, Flagstone would pay $2 million a year plus 1% of gross and 2.5% from timeshare license sales.
There is a place for a fish market within the Flagstone Properties project, according to Meredith J. Nation, business development supervisor with the city's economic development department. The local markets were invited to bid for the space, she said, but nothing has been settled.
Nearby, a bait and boat-fuel station - a Watson Island fixture for more than 30 years - faces displacement by the regional aviation & visitors center. The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is close to signing a contract with the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, an arm of the city in charge of promoting and underwriting sports and community events, to build the multi-use center. The bureau, the sports authority and the city agreed in 1997 to build and operate the center with bureau offices, heliport and seaplane airstrip, plus a press center on more than 5 acres. The sports authority would act as landlord.
The center is proposed for some of the land now used by the Watson Island Fuel and Fishing Supplies, owned by Martin Tritt, a Miami native. In November, it will be 25 years since he took over the bait shop from a friend he knew from temple.
Mr. Tritt holds a month-to-month city lease for his mom-and-pop shop filled with fishing supplies, cold drinks and snacks plus such Florida bric-a-brac as pirate heads made from coconuts and other gag gifts.
"I think it's terrible that a longtime tenant on Watson Island can be dismissed without conversation," said Mr. Tritt, who has had correspondence with the city from 1987 that notes he was the only vendor with a concession contract on the island then designated as a park.
Mr. Tritt wants to stay and has asked to meet with city officials but said he has not gotten a response. He wonders how local and visiting boaters will get quick fuel if he is evicted.
Also facing an uncertain future is Phil Shelnut, who has been running helicopter tours from Watson Island since 1989 called Action Helicopters. Mr. Shelnut and his wife run about 8,000 operations using three helicopters and two contract pilots. Mr. Shelnut bid for the contract to run the new heliport but came in second to a New Jersey firm.
"We're looking to get into the new facility," he said. "We've kept helicopter tours alive on Watson Island for the last five to seven years."
Business has dropped in recent months with construction nearby blocking part of the road to Action Helicopters.
"We have a large client base already," he said. "They find us."