PAHOKEE — City commissioners voted 4-1 during their meeting June 23, to not go forward with a revised sublease under which the city marina, lakefront campground and restaurant building would be operated by Everglades Reserves Holdings LLC (ERH).
Only Commissioner Regina Bohlen voted to proceed.
On its face, this action seems to halt all of the progress toward getting the state-owned and city-leased facilities back up and running under ERH that has been made for the past three years. In the second half of 2017, the Pahokee City Commisssion entered into negotiations with ERH and came to an agreement that October to sublease the property and open all three components. After being approved in November 2017, affirmed at least once in 2018 and then approved by the city commission for transmittal to the state Department of Environmental Protection and Division of State Lands, the sublease package had to be submitted to the Florida Internal Improvement Trust Fund Board of Trustees — which is Gov. Ron DeSantis and the three state cabinet officers. It received approval from the board on Dec. 3, 2019.
The ERH partners took that as a final OK and believe they still have a valid contract with the city; however, under the original terms the city was to deliver the property to ERH in first-class (turnkey) condition within a certain time period. Instead, the city’s new law firm reviewed the state-approved sublease because some commissioners said they wanted changes and the restaurant property was never opened except for private functions and meetings or forum-type events. Under the revised lease, ERH now must accept the property in “as-is” condition. The partners contend that there are dozens of repairs and upgrades that should have been completed under two state DEP grants that totaled some $2.3 million but were not completed; they say the property is not even up to code or ADA requirements.
During this time, the ERH partners have been in contact with the city but unable to provide much input in the revision process due to a lack of cooperation, they say, from City Manager Chandler Williamson.
The ERH’s managing partners are Robert Lambert, a cruise line CEO, and Robert A. Miller Sr., who once operated the famous Oyster House restaurant/bar in Everglades City that was destroyed by Hurricane Irma, and now runs The Pearl with several family members in Naples.
Mr. Lambert confirmed last week it was correct that the marina property was uninsurable. “But I’d also like to state for the record that our agent, Robert Grady, has tried contacting, emailing, writing Chandler Williamson for information on the insurance, which to date — and this has been going on for several months — he has refused to provide, and he also has refused to provide access for the insurance company’s inspection company,” he stated.
Mr. Lambert went on to say, about last week’s commission meeting: “I would say it’s typical Pahokee, pretty much exactly what I expected, just another chapter. First and foremost … the city manager deprived both myself and Robert Miller, we all requested the Zoom information to participate in the meeting — the attorney did it in writing, I did it by text on two occasions even during the beginning of the meeting, I texted Chandler and, of course, there was no reply. So, he essentially prohibited us from participating in that meeting.
“This is clearly the city manager trying to navigate and do everything he can to exclude us from concluding the deal that we did back in October of 2017, which, as far as I’m concerned, still stands and, I believe as far as the State of Florida, still stands,” he said.
He noted the emergency meeting the mayor has called for Tuesday night, June 30, “and there’s a lot of momentum, I’m told, to fire the city manager.”
There is both a letter-writing campaign to demand action from the commissioners and a movement among interested citizens who participate in Pahokee-related Facebook groups to have the commission fire Mr. Williamson.
The mayor has called a special meeting for 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 30.