Riviera Beach struggles to overcome decades of divisiveness

RIVIERA BEACH Mayor Michael Brown calls Riviera Beach's waterfront "a bunch of gold that's unmined" 400 acres fronting the Intracoastal Waterway, plus one of the finest beaches on Florida's east coast.

"It's the only place in the state" like it, developer Bob Healey says.

From a demographic standpoint alone, he is right:  Riviera Beach is a rare mix of rich and poor, black and white, oceanfront splendor and inner-city squalor all within 8 square miles.

For decades, this city of 33,000 has tried to profit from its natural assets. But Brown acknowledges that Riviera's image is as shabby as most of the storefronts along U.S. 1.  "Why are we looking so ugly?" he asks. "The perception is negative. Business persons think it's difficult to get anything done here. The government is unreliable. The administration is unresponsive."

Why?

Why does Riviera Beach seem to generate bad news?

For example:
In 20 years, the community redevelopment agency, with the city council serving as its board, has hired and fired 10 directors without completing a single money-making project.

The CRA is at least $8.8 million in debt, and the state is conducting an audit of its finances.

The city's Sixth Annual Jazz and Blues Festival, held in March, lost more than $600,000.

For 18 years, the CRA has been unveiling and delaying plans to redevelop the mainland waterfront.

The latest plan was revealed in August, when the CRA picked a master developer, Bob Healey and his Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, to do a $2.4 billion waterfront makeover. That plan depended on eminent domain a city's right to take private property. No agreement was signed with Viking until May when the city rushed to seal the deal before Gov. Jeb Bush signed a new law limiting the uses of the power of eminent domain.

That rush caused Riviera Beach another problem: Bush says Viking's contract may be invalid because the city failed to give proper notice of the meeting.

A makeover of the Ocean Mall site on Singer Island is also stalled, with developers wanting a 99-year lease.

So it goes. On and on. For decades, an ever-changing city council has hired and fired and made plans and delayed plans and paid millions to consultant after consultant.

And little seems to improve.

Mayor Brown points to signs of progress, all deals he brokered without the community redevelopment agency: A massive condo and marina, Marina Grande, now going up at the western base of the Blue Heron Bridge. A new Winn-Dixie. And two new subdivisions, Thousand Oaks and Sonoma Bay, in the west end of the city.

But Riviera Beach has fewer grocery stores today than it did 35 years ago. "Everybody bypassed the city" before 1999, when he was elected, Brown says.

Developer Healey admits he was warned not to invest there when he came looking for a spot to build Viking Yachts, a service center for boats, in 1997.

"It was because of the political confrontations that go on there, the history of crime and drugs," says Healey. "These 400 acres on the water, it's the only place in the state, but it came with drawbacks. If those didn't exist, Riviera Beach would have been developed a long time ago."

But it wasn't.

Why?

The race and money divide:

'A class struggle'

Depending on whom you ask, the city's problems stem from:

A. Inefficiency.

B. Crime.

C. Personality clashes.

D. Racism.

Or, E. All of the above.

It doesn't take a Donald Trump to figure out that businesses go where they can make money. Few came to Riviera Beach.

"No one would come in there with all those problems," says Healey, whose $8 million Viking Yachts was finished in 2000. "It was a poverty-driven area with obstacles."

One of those obstacles though few white officials will talk about it on the record is racial tension.

In Riviera Beach, race and money literally divide the city: The mainland is overwhelmingly black and poor. Across the Intracoastal Waterway, Singer Island is overwhelmingly white and well-off. Just 12.5 percent of the city population, Singer Island residents pay nearly half the taxes. Singer Island tried unsuccessfully to "de-annex" in 1973 two years after the first black majority was elected to the city council and secede in 1993.

City Manager Bill Wilkins calls it a classic conflict between the haves and have-nots.

"What we're really talking about is a class struggle played out as race in a society where wealth is everything," Wilkins says. "That's why black people talk so much about wealth. It is the only equalizer."

White people are uncomfortable talking about race, Mayor Brown says, but black people aren't, "because we live it."

Race is freely discussed at council meetings. Three weeks ago, council member Liz Wade said: "I am black, I am female, but I am the servant of the people of city of Riviera Beach. The black ones, the white ones, the crippled ones, the old ones, the crazy ones, even the ones that live at my marina on the water and have water for grass."

Race came up in May when Florida's legislature passed the bill limiting eminent domain, and developer Healey offered to bus residents to Tallahassee with signs saying "Jeb Bush is a racist."

Edward Rodgers, Palm Beach County's first black judge, served two stints on the Riviera Beach City Council. When you ask Rodgers, who lives on Singer Island, what the relationship is between the island and mainland, he smiles and says: "Guarded and disguised."

Herman McCray, a mainland civil rights veteran and restaurant owner, is blunt:

"They (Singer Island residents) think we're a bunch of dumb black people." McCray says. "They're so prejudiced that they won't drive down Blue Heron, they go (north) to PGA."

But, he adds: "Racism goes both ways."

Tony Gigliotti, chairman of the 900-member Singer Island Civic Association, acknowledges the tension but says: "This isn't about race. It's about inefficiency."

He says he has tried to work with the mainland on mutual goals, "and it worked superficially. But there was mistrust. I don't know what was going on under the surface."

County Commissioner Addie Greene, whose district includes Riviera Beach, says it is impossible to tell the story of the city without talking about race.

But, "you can't blame racism for what's happening in Riviera Beach now."

Today, she says, "Riviera Beach is destroying itself from within because of the destructive personalities."

She maintains the city council is too wrapped up in small-town bickering.

"There's no way a city that large should be making the same mistakes over and over again. It's the leadership," says Greene. "The citizens have gotten fed up with that council. They call me, blacks and whites, and they don't want to have a black council, and you know what, I agree with them.

"You need diversity. You want diversity. You want fairness. Singer Island is run by black people, and they (white Singer Island residents) feel, 'They're not going to help me.' "

'People just don't want to take the risk'

For 50 years in Riviera Beach, blacks were second-class citizens with dirt roads, no electricity and no right to go to the Singer Island beach.  Through the 1960s, whites ran the city and made up most of the population. By 1970, black residents became the majority.

Hostilities exploded in 1971, when a fight broke out at newly integrated Suncoast High School, and police used tear gas to force black students out of the school.  Andrew Byrd, a 1971 Suncoast grad who was in the school gym at the time, says the riot started when a black student punched a white teacher.

The incident marked a turning point, says Byrd, a Cornell-educated planner who is now a neighborhood activist. "That history has to be taken into account to explain why the situation is the way it is. It's elements of trust."

Black residents made voter registration their priority. White candidates made campaign signs that said, "Don't lose your city."

That year, 1971, the first-ever black majority was elected to the city council. Except for elections in 1984 and '89, blacks have held control of the city council.

Byrd, who is black, maintains that today "there's still racial polarization, an antagonism between the white community and blacks."

But Don DeLaney, Riviera Beach's first CRA director, claims the city's business problems stem not from race but from risk.

The city's only Publix store opened in 1959 and closed in 1990. The corporate reason, then and now: No space to expand.

The real reason, according to Wilkins, the city manager, was stealing by employees and shoppers.

A Publix spokesman denies that. "There was never a conscious design to leave Riviera Beach," counters Anne Hendricks, Publix's South Florida manager of media relations. "That store just didn't work."

But DeLaney confirms: "I had trouble keeping Publix because of extensive stealing, and we had trouble getting another store because of crime."

Riviera's reputation is so rough, some teens call it "The Raw," Mayor Brown laments. Why? Because it is open and untamed, "like the Wild West."

If Riviera Beach did not have that image, if it were an affluent black city with low crime, it would have a Publix, says DeLaney, now a national development consultant based in Hobe Sound.

"Profit is colorblind," he says. "People just don't want to take a risk. It isn't race. It's crime, political instability, acidic politics."

Mayor pushes development with an oft-changing council

Mayor Michael Brown calls the changes in Riviera Beach since his 1999 election "nothing short of miraculous."

He points out the new Winn-Dixie store, built in 2004 without the help of Riviera's community redevelopment agency.

He cites Marina Grande a 25-story condo/marina complex with units costing up to $1 million being built at the foot of Blue Heron Bridge on the mainland side of the Intracoastal Waterway. Brown brokered the $200 million deal.

After the 2004 city council election, Brown lost his three allies on the city council and some of his clout.

Battles began almost immediately between Brown who has no voting power and council veterans Liz Wade and Ann Iles. Iles, who now heads the city council, questioned why the city got no concessions from the developer of Marina Grande.

"Why didn't we get anything? We took the leadership from the mayor," Iles said at a May meeting.

Last fall, Brown was banished from the CRA dais. Iles and Wade said CRA bylaws do not include the mayor as part of the board. Wade told Brown if he wanted to voice his opinion, he could get in line with the public and have two minutes to speak.

Brown sued. After $45,000 in legal fees paid by Riviera Beach's CRA, Brown, an attorney who represented himself, regained his seat and voice on the CRA dais. Then, late last month, an appeals court upheld Brown's ban from the dais.

The dais issue is still hot: County Commissioner Greene says throwing the mayor off the dais "embarrassed the black community."

It plays to the "negative stereotype that black folks can't get along," she says. "Our young people are seeing the hatred we have for each other."

Wade says banning Brown was not up to her and Iles alone: "When the rest of council realized how detrimental Michael Brown was, they backed the bylaws."

Wade has been elected seven times and served on the council for 14 years; Iles has served since 2003 (she also served on the council, alongside her brother, Gerald Adams, in the mid-'80s).

Long terms such as Wade's are rare.

Because all five seats on the council are up for election every two years, at least two of the five seats are on the ballot every March.

Only once in the past 20 years have the same five council members served three straight years together.

Boca Raton, Lake Worth, Atlantis and Delray Beach use the same two-year council terms and alternating-year elections as Riviera Beach, but their voters don't consistently elect new people.

An ever-changing council is an asset for a do-nothing government, Brown claims.

"Whenever they want to reduce public outcry or mitigate damage," Brown says of the city council, "they call a workshop on a Saturday. Then they'll call another workshop and file it and have another workshop and it's time for another election."

Riviera Beach's annual jazz festival, created to bolster the city's image, has lost money five straight years with a whopping loss of more than $600,000 this year. The council initially announced it would hold a jazz festival workshop.

City manager Wilkins says Riviera's costliest lost opportunity was the 1989 annexation of 551 acres between Florida's Turnpike and Haverhill Road. Riviera Beach spent more than $1 million for water and sewer lines, but West Palm Beach annexed the land first because of Riviera's delays.

"It just fell apart because the councils kept changing," says Wilkins.

Wade agrees the upheaval on the council has hurt the city, but she is against longer council terms. "When good people are in," she says, "the problem will solve itself."

Brown wants a 2007 referendum to change the city charter and give the mayor voting powers.

Wade opposes that idea.

"In this small community, anyone who can win a popularity contest could be mayor," she said. "You could end up with a one-legged baboon."

Critics and cronyism:

'Everyone covers up...'

The question is this, Mayor Brown says: "Can you make the trains run on time?"

Two people who are paid to do that the city manager and the director of the community redevelopment agency can be fired at any time by the city council.

In the past 20 years, Riviera Beach has gone through 10 CRA directors, eight police chiefs and 10 city managers.

Floyd Johnson, the CRA director for the past two years, just got a raise to $165,000. At a May council meeting, he reminded residents that Riviera's redevelopment was "more complex" than the deal to build The Scripps Research Institute, so it would take time.

Wilkins, the city manager, was fired in 1987 and rehired in 1999. He's also been interim police chief and CRA director.

The last city manager who tried to run city hall instead of carrying out the will of the council was fired in 1999, making way for Wilkins' second spin in the job.

Rodgers, who was a council member, tried but failed to stop the 1999 firing.

"It's retaliatory," he says, of the council's history of firing city managers. "We haven't been able to overcome friction and abusiveness."

A 1997 Palm Beach Post editorial put it this way: "One city council tells the manager that his or her support depends on pleasing the council majority and finding jobs for cronies. Then a new council arrives and looks for another manager who will do the same for the next majority."

Wilkins, who makes $141,490, says: "You'd think with the inconsistency of the board, you'd want consistency with the city manager."

He is in charge of day-to-day operation of the city. Wilkins can fire any city employee except the city attorney. Since 1999, he hasn't fired any department bosses.

Brown complains: "We have grant writers that can't write grants. We have technology people who don't know about technology. We have a rec department that's closed during spring break, and the council people pretend it's acceptable.

"There's a tolerance and acceptance of inferior work," he says. "When you create this culture, everyone covers up each other's mistakes."

Wilkins' response to criticism of the staff: "I'll defend my choices by just saying I hire the most competent people."

Doretha Perry, the city's human resources boss, who has been with the city since 1966, has heard charges about nepotism and cronyism.

"That's a wrong perception," Perry said. "I've heard it. 'Oh, you have to know someone to get a job.' It's not true. I look at the applicants and I look to see if they have a relative in that department."

The city does not allow two family members in the same department.

Council member Wade's daughter works as a police dispatcher.

The police chief's wife is an attorney for the CRA's master developer.

Perry's son is the fire chief, and she's quick to defend him: "Troy worked his way up to chief."

Brown's brother, Jeffery, does demolition work for Viking, the master developer.

As for hiring neighbors, friends, the kid who grew up down the street, Perry says there is no favoritism, but it is human nature to hire someone familiar whether it's Riviera Beach or the White House.

Former council member Rodgers says the quality of the city's staff is crucial.

"You have to rely on staff," he says, "and if they aren't good at their jobs, they leave council members twisting in the wind and left to the charlatans."

The color of money:

Big developers roll in

Liz Wade defends her city: "The negatives, all the negatives, are perceptions. I'm very optimistic. Investors have come full force and redevelopment is going to happen. The question is, who'll be driving the train? Liz Wade, a strong mayor, whoever.

"Riviera Beach is alive," Wade says. "It's about the greenback now."

Big money is indeed coming into Riviera Beach.

Wayne Huizenga Jr., son of the billionaire Miami Dolphins owner, has paid as much as three times the value of homes to buy land to build a shipyard for mega-yachts just north of Lockheed Martin on the city's prime mainland waterfront.

Is now the time to turn talk into action in Riviera Beach?

Brown is moving fast on the waterfront redevelopment. In May, he pushed to hire Bernard Kinsey, who grew up in West Palm Beach, to take over negotiations with the Viking Inlet Harbor development and Ocean Mall. Kinsey has corporate and civic credentials he is a former Xerox executive and co-chairman of Rebuild Los Angeles and that background, plus "being of African-American descent" impressed council member Vanessa Lee.

"Don't get this wrong," Lee, who is black, said at a May 19 meeting. "It's not that I don't care about everyone, but at some point in time, we have to learn to help ourselves."

Kinsey's six-month contract will cost at least $434,000 and, with expenses, could exceed $1 million.

If Riviera Beach fixes up the waterfront, the city could put as much as $10 billion on the tax rolls, Brown told the council.

"There's no other city or CRA, I'll bet you, in the country that has that type of potential sitting on the Atlantic Ocean," Brown said. "There's no other city that has all of that wealth. It's like having a bunch of gold that's unmined, but you also have the poorest people in the country. That should be unacceptable."

Waterfront master developer Healey has already spent $10 million on the development deal.

Some of that money was spent on philanthropy: Healey paid for the funeral of 3-year-old Erikh Davis, shot in 2004 when a masked man broke into his mother's apartment. He paid for the "State of the City" dinner and for Martin Luther King Jr. birthday events.

"In Riviera Beach, you have a lot of people with their hand out," Healey says. "But, bottom line, we'll get a (redevelopment contract) that's not political, not based on handouts. We're going to assist people."

Mayor Brown says he's "going to fight" for redevelopment, even if he has to go up against the governor. "I don't have a choice. I owe it to the kids in this community."