In keeping with David’s Cafe’s annual tradition of hosting the Miami Beach mayor at restaurateur David Kelsey’s first Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club confab of the year, Matti Bower this week answered questions from an audience huddled inside with warm coffee and Cuban toast; outside, the first real cold spell of the season blew chill air. The cheery Bower, fresh from reelection to a third term, took questions ranging from the convention center to historic preservation:
Joshing about having to come out in the cold: “I was thinking to myself, ‘They [the Breakfast Club] have to have me in this cold weather?’ I wanted to turn over and continue sleeping.” [Laughter.]
On the Miami Beach Convention Center: “I think we have to continue very strongly working for the convention center so that the distraction that we’ve had with the gambling doesn’t compound it again. We need to move [convention center expansion plans] forward.
“On a positive note, I went to see the county mayor [Carlos Giminez] the other day and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I want the convention center and I want it in Miami Beach,’ so that’s a very positive thing that happened. And we’re going to continue to work on that. We had the big distraction of the gambling and it could be that it comes again next year, could be that it passes this year, although I doubt it. We need to keep an eye on that and move forward. The convention center is something that we need very, very bad.”
Why attract more people to visit here? “For the taxpayers, you used to pay – when I got into office as a commissioner – 60% of all the taxes collected from property [which] used to go into the budget, and that paid for everything. Now, you have more services, more everything, and only 40% of the budget we have now is from property taxes. The rest is made up by the tourists that come here. That’s one of the misconceptions of the general public: That the people that come to visit Miami Beach don’t give to us. 60% of our budget is paid by the tourists.
“I know that we can continue to give you parks, recreation, dances for the elderly, all those extra things that make Miami Beach such a special place to live. We give it to you because it comes from the tourist tax.
“The other thing is Miami Beach needs to keep reinventing itself. We have many trade shows. For that tax to continue to come to Miami Beach, we need to fill the hotels.
“Now the trade shows are what they call a local satisfier, like the home show and all those shows that come through the convention center. When those shows are coming in – let’s say the boat show, a big, big show – the convention set-up takes a week or a week-and-a-half. Nothing happens in the convention center as that show is being set up. So the hotels don’t get all those people coming in to visit. It’s a standstill.
“The reason we expanded and the reason we want to expand it [further] is because the people of the convention center business – the experts – [say] if you build more [space] then, as that one is being set up, the other one is working and you are able to keep the hotels constantly moving. That is the one thing that I heard over and over.
“Now, remember, I’m not an expert in conventions, either. I learned by listening and reading with an open mind. The problem here is that we want what we want and we close our minds to everything else that is happening around us.
“I’ve been here long enough that I was here when many of you were not here. When we walked down the street we had a wonderful life. We could park anywhere we wanted because there was nothing going on. We could throw a bowling ball down the street and hit nothing. [Laughter.] So we have changed that around.
“Is that an imposition on the residents? Yes, it is. It’s an imposition on me. I live on Española Way. You don’t think I live in the middle of everything? I live in the middle of it just like many of you do. And why don’t I move? Because I love it here. Because with all the problems that you perceive and all the issues that we have in the city, we are still the best city [in which] to live here.
“I have to tell you that I love Miami Beach, I would never move from Miami Beach. [This city is] a little New York and we have to think about it that way. It is a little New York. And New York I love because it’s always happy. There’s a lot of problems but people are happy and my people here are happy. We do a survey, and 86% of the people that answer the survey love it here. We are excellent here. And 77% would recommend people move here. That’s a very high percentage for a city.
“We do need a convention center. We do need to look at the traffic patterns. We know that that’s going to impact the city, but we need to keep evolving if Miami Beach [is to stay] a vibrant city.
“You know why Miami Beach is such a vibrant city? Because of its people. Look around you. Look at the mix of people that we have: Age, cultural, economic. And that’s what makes us great.”
To a questioner asking about contentiousness among city commissioners: “Do you all know I have a little button now? I’ve had it for about a year. I have a little button that is right in front of me [on the Commission dais] and when I press that button, all the microphones stop except mine. So when the Commission gets out of hand I say, [speaking coquettishly] ‘Okay, remember the button, people.’ And all of a sudden they realize that the button is there and that I can press that button. That’s how I’m gonna do. [Teasing.] I only wish I had a button nowwww… [Laughter.]
“Listen, we all have different views in the Commission. We all need to express all the views in the Commission. Those that have different views than everybody else, it is okay. That’s just like this diversity that we have here. We make a better Commission on having people with different ideas all the time. That makes a better Commission.
“Always ask a preservationist. I’ve heard that a long time ago when we were saving buildings. We had one person – Barbara Capitman – that was very stubborn about preservation, and those around her would give in a little bit. That’s how we got our [Art Deco] district, that’s how we got this beautiful city to move forward. We all have to compromise. And by doing that I’ve learned that the difference in opinion is good. It is good to have difference of opinion. The only thing we have to learn is to compromise and to move forward and always be positive because only by being positive can we move our city forward.”
On homelessness: “We work very hard on the homeless and in winter it gets worse because a lot of them come down from the North.
“We spend over a million dollars as it is – if not more – on beds because of the law, the way that it is. We have a homeless outreach program that we will send out whenever we hear they’ve changed location. What happens with the homeless program is you can ask them to leave [but] you have to have an empty bed. That is the law. We spend a lot of money because I believe, like many of the commissioners, that it should be a holistic program that we offer to the homeless to try to keep them out.
“There’s those homeless that you can never fix, they will always be there. So what happens is they move around.
“We are working year round, that’s one of the things that we never, never stop. And we have even sent them home if at the end of the season they want to return and they can give us the address of a family person. We put them on the bus, we pay for bus fare, and we send them back. So we have a lot of different [options].
“That is a problem that will exist. The law says that if they have a place to go, that’s their home, they can do it.
“I have come up with different ideas that maybe if we designate certain bathrooms – let’s say a police station, the fire department station – designate a place [the homeless can use]. A lot of people were against that, they didn’t want to do that. Maybe I can bring that up again.
“We have had to close – on the beach – a lot of the bathrooms because of the homeless. The other thing that we have tried is that the bathrooms be in conjunction with a person that sells something for the beachgoers, and now in a contract that we’re doing with the people that have the chairs outside, we’re asking them to take care of the bathrooms, to try to maintain [them].
“The fact is, you have asked me the toughest question that there is to resolve, which is the homeless. And it will get better at certain times of the year and it will get worse but why don’t you call me, if you have any ideas at all.
“And I have to say that sometimes the police seem to be afraid to do certain [enforcement] things because then they could get into trouble and they hide behind the laws and not do it. We know that, okay. You’re not telling me anything new on that. It is a hard issue.”
On the Apple store on Lincoln Mall: “I sat down with Apple and – I’m a very strong preservationist – they wanted to demolish that corner building. I don’t think that we should demolish a building that is in the list of contributing buildings because I feel very strongly that [if you allow this] you set a precedent [that makes future efforts to demolish similar buildings easier]. The first day you do is the first day of many days [that] they do. [Applause.]
“I sat with the Apple people and they assured me that they love Miami Beach. I actually took a tip from a gentleman that is standing in the back of the room, Lyle Stern [a Lincoln Road property owner now redeveloping the historic Lincoln Theater for a retailer], that we should do more. So I took his advice, because I listen with an open mind even though people think I don’t. [Apple is] still looking around to see where they can go. They’re not going anyplace, he assured me that, that’s all that I can tell you.
“We cannot overwrite this historic preservation stuff, otherwise we will be demolishing half the world. We made it that way on purpose.”