New era dawns in Riviera Beach politics

RIVIERA BEACH The Rev. Herman McCray, a longtime city activist, led a group of blacks and whites in prayer outside Buddy's Cafe and Deli on Singer Island last Tuesday night. Hand in hand, they shared a common cause: Oust eight-year Mayor Michael Brown and his slate of city council candidates.

The group at Buddy's, where they later celebrated winning all three available council seats, was a unique mix led by the Singer Island faithful, old-guard black leaders and their own slate of underdog candidates. They forged a union that proved to be unbeatable, tossing out all four incumbents, including Brown, who had lost his seat March 13.

Next Wednesday during the 7:30 p.m. city council meeting, the revolution will be made official. Taking their seats on the dais for the first time will be Bishop Thomas Masters, mayor; Shelby Lowe, District 5; Cedrick Thomas, District 3; and Lynne Hubbard, District 1.

"A clean sweep," boasts Dawn Pardo, chairwoman of the Public Beach Coalition, the group that got two city charter amendments on the ballot that now limit buildings to five stories and leases to 50 years at the Ocean Mall at the municipal beach on Singer Island.

The incoming mayor and council begin a new era in Riviera Beach politics, one where the emphasis won't necessarily be on Brown's $2.4 billion redevelopment plan. The new vision should be more modest and with a different set of architects, according to Singer Island and mainland residents who supported the new mayor and council members.

Redevelopment still remains central to the city's shedding its crime-ridden, poverty-plagued image. The challenge for the incoming mayor and council is developing the city's greatest asset - its waterfront - while navigating around the political land mines that Brown and the former council failed to avoid.

Riviera Beach is fortunate. Three major developers are poised to transform the city's waterfront into an international tourist destination: builder Dan Catalfumo, yacht maker Bob Healey and Wayne Huizenga Jr., son of the billionaire Miami Dolphins owner.

The mayor and council must bring the developers back to the table and hammer out a plan that incorporates the residents' wishes, said Tony Gigliotti, chairman of the Singer Island Civic Association, one of the two island groups that endorsed the four winning candidates.

No deal should force developers to pay extras to the city as a condition for getting their plans approved, he said. Gigliotti is referring to the "community benefits" package that was presented to developers like Catalfumo and Huizenga that required them to guarantee jobs, pay for community programs and support city events as part of their deals with the city.

"I don't think you have to hold a gun to a developer's head in order to get them to be good corporate citizens," Gigliotti said.

Still, it may take more than eliminating such conditions to make Catalfumo feel welcome. His $280 million plan to revamp the Ocean Mall was the political wake-up call that prompted the revolt among voters.

Catalfumo wanted to raze the 33-year-old mall and build a 28-story, 300-plus-room Marriott condo/hotel with shops and restaurants while leasing the city-owned 11-acre site for 50 years.

But Gigliotti said residents opposed the plan because of the condo/hotel. According to him, residents want the incoming council to revert to the original design in the city's comprehensive plan, a 100-room hotel with a Caribbean village concept.

"That's why the backlash was so severe," Gigliotti said. "That (Catalfumo's) plan should have never been approved."

But the outgoing council did approve it Dec. 18. The vote triggered a domino effect that led residents to a series of victories that went from the courthouse to the ballot box.

Catalfumo, meanwhile, holds the 16 remaining years on a 50-year lease he bought from Andrew Brock in August for $9.5 million. Brock's father began leasing the Ocean Mall site from the city in 1972.

Joey Eichner, vice president with Catalfulmo's company, Catalfumo Construction and Development, said it hasn't withdrawn its plans to redevelop the Ocean Mall. Obviously, the outcome of the election affects the project, and Catalfumo will wait for the new mayor and council to be seated before moving forward, he said.

"We'll wait to hear from the council before we determine how to proceed, which includes any legal remedies," Eichner said.

From where Bob Healey sits, however, the message that voters sent is clearly anti-redevelopment. Healey's company, Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, was selected in September 2005 as the city's master developer to turn 400 acres of blight along the Intracoastal Waterway into a dazzling waterfront.

Healey, who was recruited by Brown to Riviera Beach some eight years ago, questions the incoming council's commitment to redevelopment.

"On election day, the people who came out for redevelopment got blown away," Healey said. "The people of Riviera Beach have spoken. No redevelopment."

After buying nearly $50 million in land and investing an additional $3 million in the Riviera Beach Maritime Academy, Healey said the outcome of the election has made the redevelopment picture cloudy.

At a news conference, all of the newly elected council members and mayor professed to support redevelopment. However, they stressed making sure that residents have a say in how the redevelopment proceeds.

Brown's mistake was pushing his plan while threatening to use eminent domain to acquire land for Viking. That created enough fear and anti-Brown sentiment that voters rebelled against him, Gigliotti said.

He hopes that the mayor and council will learn from their predecessors' mistakes.

"The celebration is over," Gigliotti said, "and it's time to roll up the sleeves and get to work."