PAHOKEE — City commissioners decided July 28 to formally notify the state of the 4-1 decision June 23 that Everglades Reserve Holdings LLC (ERH) is not the majority’s choice to develop the city-leased marina, campground and restaurant along the Lake Okeechobee waterfront.
Commissioner Regina Bohlen dissented in the original vote but voted yes to send a letter.
Also Tuesday — even though there exists a city sublease with ERH signed by Mayor Keith L. Babb Jr. nearly three years ago, approved by several unanimous votes of city commissioners since 2017 and approved by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the cabinet officers in early December 2019 — the commission voted 4-1, again with Bohlen dissenting, to put out a new Request for Proposals (RFP) for an operator to reopen the long-closed restaurant only.
The already approved 2017 sublease with the city had led the two ERH managing partners, Robert Lambert and Robert A. Miller Sr., to purchase landscaping materials and assist with their own laborers in installing thousands of dollars’ worth of plants and related improvements; acquire and move in restaurant equipment as well as furnishings; and provide labor to install new ramps to the docks at the marina, among several other parts of the projects. Since the signing of the lease in October 2017, the ERH partners have invested over $100,000 into the property in anticipation of reopening it to the public and operating the three components of the lakeside recreation area, in anticipation of the state’s approval.
That came when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (or DEP)’s Division of State Lands presented the sublease to the Board of Trustees of the Florida Internal Improvement Trust Fund (IITF) eight months ago. The governor and the three cabinet officers, who are the trustees, voted 4-0 to approve the sublease with ERH.
Valid sublease, or not?
During that same time between the signing and the December 2019 state action, City Manager Chandler Williamson was overseeing administration of two separate Florida Department of Economic Opportunity grants, together worth over $2.2 million, that were awarded for what was to be a near-total renovation of the campground, marina and restaurant buildings that had fallen into some disrepair after prior long delays in having any developers or professionals, other than the city staff, to operate them.
Bohlen explained her votes in an interview Friday. “The reason I voted yes to send the letter is so that we get a definitive answer from the state — if we have a valid lease and can’t go forward with anyone else; or no, we don’t have a valid lease and we’re able to move forward.
“That puts this question, if it’s yes or no, on the state. Because I don’t see how you go ahead with anything if they think that it’s fully executed.”
The commissioner added, that is why she also voted no on going out for an RFP.
“I think three years is long enough to wait,” said Bohlen.
She has taken that position in part because the Everglades Reserve Holdings partners believe their lease is valid, and she says they’ve proved it by taking an active role in the renovations.
Speaking for ERH, Lambert said in an interview: “We’re still proceeding with … this endeavor. We continue to be very concerned about the condition of the marina, which is clearly being operated in an illegal manner. The swimming pool, the campground facility, all in our opinion are being operated in an illegal manner. We do understand that Williamson has been quickly sending folks around to try to repair little things. But, for instance, the ADA ramps, the hand ramp thing is missing, you know, the same old, same old. And now for the big question, where did the $2.2 million go? It didn’t go into the project.”
ERH says, ‘We have a signed lease’
Noting that the swimming pool at the marina complex was closed last week again for a few days by the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, Lambert said he’s been in touch with various state officials who have been handling this project but declined to comment, saying the city would get the official word from them. “The city commission is going to send a letter to the state asking for their feedback, so I don’t want to preempt that,” he said.
“Our position and the position of our counsel is that we have a signed lease, which clearly indicated in what condition that facility was to be delivered in. (Now) it’s going to be delivered as is, … which was never the case. (Since) the time of the lease signing back in October of 2017 … Chandler has been holding up having this lease go forward, and I can only imagine why.”
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay represents District 6, which takes in the Glades area, and has had much to do with helping enable the City of Pahokee get the DEO grants. She also is unhappy with the action taken by a majority of the city commissioners.
Asked about the commission’s action, she said Friday, “I think they’re finding that the marina project is not complete.”
Vows to request an audit
She intends to do something about it. “I have concerns about how the state funding has been spent by the city. I will be making a formal request to the state auditor general and the Joint Legislative Audit Committee of the Florida Legislature on the recommendation of the Palm Beach County Inspector General’s Office.
“I believe that the people of Pahokee deserve a refurbished, open marina, restaurant and campground, and there’s no reason that should not have happened by now. And I am hopeful we can get to where we can find out where these dollars (the DEO’s $2.2 million) have been spent, and determine what we need to move forward to bring this project to fruition.
“To initiate any further delay is disappointing,” she said. McKinlay sent a letter to the commission before its decision Tuesday urging it to go forward with ERH.
“I wish it was an action they weren’t seeking because I think they need to keep moving forward, not backward. I’m not educated in contractual law, but I have to believe that there’s a possible breach of contract there.
“The bottom line is: The marina should have been open. It should have been many months ago. It’s not acceptable that hasn’t happened yet,” County Commissioner McKinlay stated.