RIVIERA BEACH — The sign touting Harbor Village, the anchor of the city's $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment, is fading.
Erected in a vacant lot at Broadway and 15th Street, it lists a mayor and city council no longer in office. And its promise as a catalyst to transform 400 acres on the Intracoastal Waterway into a dazzling city core seems to be disappearing as well.
Last May, Riviera Beach officials thought they were well on their way to turning the blighted area into a development filled with shops, restaurants, a marina, a hotel, an aquarium and condominiums as they brokered a deal with master developer Viking Inlet Harbor Properties.
But state lawmakers and then-Gov. Jeb Bush took away eminent domain, the carrot the city used bring Viking on board. Stripped of the power to take land for the redevelopment effort, Viking - the development arm of a New Jersey yacht maker - was unwilling to mortgage Harbor Village for the sake of a few landowners who wanted more for their property than Viking was willing to spend.
One year later, the streets around Broadway are filled with vacant lots, abandoned buildings, run-down houses and dozens of mom-and-pop businesses.
That has left many in the city wondering whether the redevelopment vision, like the sign, is fading.
Floyd Johnson, executive director of the community redevelopment agency, doesn't think so. He believes it's time to reevaluate the redevelopment plan and made a pitch last week for the CRA board to hire a consultant to do so.
Johnson understood that his request could send the wrong message.
"I am aware as I bring this recommendation to you that it automatically raises questions as to whether or not we are going back to square one," Johnson told the CRA board Wednesday. "I suggest that we are not. I suggest that what we are trying to do is to move forward but with the benefit of the knowledge and experience that the last several months have given us."
But that's a hard sell, given that the architect of Harbor Village, former Mayor Michael Brown, was ousted in March. After being at the city's helm since 1999, Brown lost voter support as fears about eminent domain turned to anger.
In addition, Viking was a staunch Brown supporter and now finds itself having to take its cues from a new mayor and three council members who were elected on a limited-growth platform.
Viking Chairman Bob Healey isn't showing his hand yet, although he's bought nearly $50 million in land in preparation for building Harbor Village.
"I think they're sincere people, the new mayor and council," Healey said from his New Jersey office. "They're all talking about going forward. It's still in the stage where they're trying to get their program together."
Huizenga's role raises hope
The city council - which sits as the CRA board - is proclaiming that the redevelopment is not dead. At a recent CRA meeting, newly elected Council Chairman Shelby Lowe said city officials are talking to Healey and Wayne Huizenga Jr., who also has bought a bunch a land in the redevelopment area.
Those conversations may lead to a scaled-back version of Harbor Village, Healey said. Regardless, Healey and Huizenga - the son of the owner of the Miami Dolphins - have invested too much money in land within the redevelopment area just to walk away, CRA observers say.
Here's why: Both men are major players in the yachting industry. There are few places like Riviera Beach, where yachts can reach the Atlantic Ocean within minutes.
Second, Healey and Huizenga market to different segments of the yachting industry. Huizenga wants to target the mega-yacht crowd, an elite group of consumers to whom only a few places in the world provide services.
Huizenga has brought in renowned yacht maker Rybovich and Sons, which is operating at the heart of the redevelopment area. Rybovich gives Huizenga a foothold in the race to develop the waterfront.
Healey, meanwhile, could expand his company's emphasis on smaller luxury and sport yachts. Both men can provide a tremendous boost to what's been dubbed Riviera Beach's "working waterfront."
That translates into jobs - well-paying jobs. And it's one reason Healey spent $3 million launching the Riviera Beach Maritime Academy, a public charter school that trains students to work in the marine industry.
The charter school is about the only bright spot over the last year in the redevelopment effort. Otherwise, the project faced setback after setback, including a series of lawsuits filed against the city stemming from its deal with Viking to use eminent domain. The backlash from irate property owners is only now subsiding.
Two legal advocacy groups, the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Institute for Justice, withdrew their eminent-domain lawsuits last week because attorneys for the residents and business owners they represented believe promises that the new mayor and council have no intentions of using eminent domain.
Brown, meanwhile, stands behind the decision to approve the deal with Viking on the eve of Bush's signing the new law restricting eminent domain. He still believes the city has a good enough case to challenge the law.
"The city of Riviera Beach and the CRA undertook a redevelopment plan that was consistent with the law at the time," said Brown, an attorney who specializes in eminent domain cases. "The law does not permit the government to change the law in midstream to the detriment of other people."
The city's use of eminent domain was often overblown, said former Councilwoman Liz Wade, who was often at odds with Brown.
"You had people who were upset and scared," said Wade, who was ousted in March as part of the backlash.
To jump-start redevelopment, Brown pushed the council to hire consultant Bernard Kinsey, who quickly became a lightning rod for controversy and boosted the anti-Brown sentiment when he received a $3,000-a-day contract.
Kinsey didn't make headway on the mainland redevelopment project but brought the city a $280 million deal with builder Dan Catalfumo to redevelop the Ocean Mall at the municipal beach on Singer Island.
But the deal further galvanized mainland and Singer Island residents. They formed an alliance that ousted the four incumbents up for reelection and killed the Catalfumo deal by getting voters to approve a referendum limiting building height on the city beach to five stories.
Kinsey bid farewell to the city and the CRA last week. His contract ends Friday.
"I am really somewhat mixed about the last year, but on balance I feel real good about what we were able to do," Kinsey told the CRA board.
Firms want leaders to listen
Meanwhile, business owners such as Mike and Nora Mahoney await word on the redevelopment's future.
The Mahoneys, fearing the loss of their T-shirt business and an office building to eminent domain, sued the city last year with help from the Virginia-based Institute for Justice.
The Mahoneys are regulars at council and CRA meetings. They've been in business in Riviera Beach at least since 1993 and have followed the redevelopment since 1999.
Their biggest complaint about the past mayor and council: lack of communication. With their livelihoods on the line, they felt the council wasn't forthcoming with details and left eminent domain hanging over their heads, Nora Mahoney said.
However, after the March election they no longer have such criticisms. They feel the new officials are willing to listen to the people.
"It's a clean slate now," said Mike Mahoney, who stood behind the counter at Dee's T-shirts at 2120 Broadway.
They support scaled-down redevelopment similar to a previous plan that emerged from a planning session held by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council nearly a decade ago.
The plan provided less density, business owners were encouraged to spruce up their properties and no one felt like the city was coming to take their properties, Nora Mahoney said.
"Broadway was going to look like Worth Avenue with a Caribbean flavor," she said.