You can’t put Humpty Dumpty together again in South Beach
Miami Beach is stumbling through a minefield that could blow up its economy. Impacts of a worsening pandemic are battering the city’s economic driver, its visitor industry, causing officials to assess diversifying away from reliance on guests.
Nobody has hit the panic button, but it is at hand.
The city spent years and millions to modernize a convention center that was repurposed for the pandemic from canceled meetings to dealing with Covid-19. Meetings and conventions had provided about 25% of visitors. Who knows when they can be held safely again.
Tens of thousands in the industry are unemployed. With virus totals soaring, rapid tourism recovery is more hope than reality. Even as the Biden administration targets the virus, there is no guarantee that humanity can eradicate this disease.
At the same time, a former shining star, the Art Deco entertainment area, is being harshly criticized as deterring high-spending visitors who left the party years ago. Comments sent to MiamiTodayNews.com point to dirt, noise and thuggish behavior creating an environment readers would rather not visit.
That complaint can be summarized in a question by a visitor industry pillar: “Other than sand and ocean, what does Miami Beach offer families?” The city is wrestling with that.
On the other side, a reader says visitors come to South Beach just to party in the streets all night with lots of drinks, drugs, sex and noise. Preserve that atmosphere to lure the visitors, he says, and let anyone who doesn’t like it go elsewhere.
Ugly as that sounds, it underscores a truism: people go where they feel comfortable and welcome. Is the welcome going to be a warm family feeling, or drink, drugs and rowdiness, or something entirely different? All those environments can’t coexist, so not everyone will be happy with any outcome.
So now the city is poised to re-imagine its economy, tied to what South Beach should be and how to get there. On the table are parking, transportation, physical building stock, noise, public safety and more.
That’s a tremendous task, as Mayor Dan Gelber notes in a report on page 22 of this week’s Miami Today: “A re-imagination isn’t going to happen with a single ordinance change – it’s going to take a lot of different approaches to see what commissioners have an appetite for and what might work out.”
Indeed, it is so complex that my friend in the visitor industry asks whether Beach tourism can be saved at all.
Much of the answer rests with how officials and the industry gauge external forces they can’t control but might mitigate. Chief now is the pandemic, coupled with fear of future pandemics. In the mix are climate change and sea level rise.
Other external forces are the long-term recovery from the pandemic and how our federal government handles economics, finances and taxation. Add in a work-at-home world that allows well-to-do Northeasterners, and of course everyone else, to work anywhere on the globe, including on Miami Beach waterfront.
How well will Miami Beach business interests read and act on these trends? And how can city officials pave the way for forces that will buoy the economy via legislation that makes not only the Art Deco district but all the city able to build on favorable trends and mitigate the unfavorable?
Miami Beach business and government leaders know this: the city has changed often and undoubtedly it will again. It’s up to them to channel change in favorable directions and get out sandbags when unfavorable winds blow.
Changes began a century ago when Carl Fisher filled in swamps and developed the island. Since then, South Beach especially has been re-invented many times.
One was Art Deco construction. Those buildings rose in the late 1930s Depression not for high-end guests but for lower-middle-income New Yorkers’ inexpensive vacations.
That changed in the 1940s when the beaches were filled not with vacationers but hundreds of thousands of military trainees preparing for World War II.
After the war South Beach lured back Northeasterners as they aged and adding European war refugees who came to spend their declining years. By the mid 1970s the most visible icons of the Art Deco district were rocking chairs filling every front porch.
That changed with 125,000 younger Mariel arrivals to Miami-Dade. Because South Beach rents were so low, clusters of them filled single rooms in the Art Deco area.
The youth movement accelerated as entrepreneurs restored aging Art Deco buildings in the 1980s, bringing in much younger residents with entertainment to match. That and Miami Vice – which featured the area – helped make South Beach a global hot spot for filming, models and celebrities.
Near the end of that era, developers who capitalized on glitz came in with their own ideas for South Beach. Donald Trump in early 1995 led an entourage of Malaysians and Indonesians from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach to South Beach in a failed bid to get them to invest $250 million for a massive development.
The celebrity crowd subsequently left the entertainment area. It has been in steady decline since, with the latest wave being visitors who again bunk in groups in low-cost hotel rooms. That is the puzzle commissioners must unravel: how does the city uplift a fallen area?
Those who like an area with streets full of drinkers and noise well into the pre-dawn are content. But the city isn’t having any of it, which sets up the immediate conflict.
Cleaning up the neighborhood is, as the mayor notes, only one step on a long road. So, what are the next steps, how long is the road and where should it lead?
It’s obvious South Beach isn’t what it was. But you can’t go home again. We don’t want Miami Vice. The models and celebs aren’t coming back. Conventioneers aren’t coming over to drink and dine from a convention center that’s minus big conventions.
The city, businesses, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. Unless we want streets full of rowdies who repel everyone else, we need to imagine the next step for South Beach and take it.
That’s a slow transition – barring natural or health or national disasters that we cannot control. So, in what direction should a transition head?
It would be hard even in decades to pivot the South Beach economy totally away from visitors. Certainly some percentage of businesses and residents will not depend on tourism. But it’s unlikely to approach 90%, so current city concerns are both real and urgent. They have to prop up tourism now while simultaneously pivoting in a new direction.
There is no single “right” answer, but there are a lot of wrong ones, chief among them being trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
South Beach is due another road to change. It can’t go backward, only forward. The city is on the right track in asking questions. It needs to act very fast in an economic nosedive to find the best path and start moving.