Black residents chosen to manage a concert hall

West Palm Beach officials chose a local operator for the Sunset Lounge on Monday night, capping a protracted process that pitted a Miami-based non-black group against a group led by black residents eager to oversee the return of a venue that was once the cultural center of the city’s predominantly black northwest neighborhood.

The city’s community redevelopment agency, which purchased the 1920s supper club and a nearby plot in 2015, has yet to negotiate a contract with the winning bidder, Vita, LLC, a collection of restoration experts, hotel management, accounting and food who came together in an effort to win salon management.

This contract could be presented to Mayor Keith James and the municipal commissioners, who act as the ARC’s board of directors, as early as August.

As with most things in the city’s efforts to restore the Sunset, getting to this point has been a challenge.

The city has poured $16 million into the project, which has been slowed by delays and deadline extensions.

Now, however, the Sunset Lounge is on track to receive a temporary certificate of occupancy as early as the end of July with an opening scheduled for the end of this year or the beginning of 2023.

If management contract negotiations go smoothly, Vita will determine what food is offered and what musical acts are booked at a venue that has already hosted the likes of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and James Brown.

That’s a big if given that Vita, unlike competitor Mad Room Hospitality, said it hopes to use $850,000 of city taxpayer money for start-up costs.

How did Vita win the bid for the Sunset Lounge?

Vita relied on its local connections to make its pitch.

“We are that community,” said Naeima Frieson, who is expected to serve as Vita’s co-director of sales and operations. “Every time we set foot there, we see our mothers, our grandmothers, our aunts, our uncles. And we believe that no one is able to tell our story with passion better than this group.

Representatives for Mad Room, which operates restaurants, bars and lounges in Miami and Oakland Park, acknowledged that their lack of local connections was a hurdle they had to overcome.

“One of the things we recognize is that we come as strangers, and I understand how that could be seen as a challenge,” Zach Bush, co-owner of Mad Room, told city commissioners. “But I want everyone to know that we’ve had meaningful conversations with people in the community.”

James and the curators were impressed with Mad Room’s track record, which includes operating the Ball and Chain bar and lounge in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, the Mai-Kai, a Tiki bar in Oakland Park, and Taquerias El Mexicano. and Los Altos, a Mexican bar and restaurant in Miami.

Zach Bush and his brother and Mad Room co-owner Ben Bush told the commissioners they had the resources to operate the Sunset and had the backing of their bank.

“We have an established financial capability and track record,” Ben Bush said. “We do not plan to request public funds, and our bank has also confirmed that it is willing to work with us on financing.”

An ARC technical committee evaluated the Vita and Mad Room offerings based on a variety of factors, including their qualifications and experience, marketing strategies, funding, potential community benefits, planning assurances, and participation. small businesses and minorities.

The bidders participated in an event with members of the local community where they offered a preview of the food and entertainment options they would be offering.

Mad Room edged out Vita in both categories, earning a one-point advantage from the Technical Committee and a 4.2-point advantage from the Community Event.

But Mad Room was playing on Vita’s court. And what Vita’s offering lacked in experience as a group operating entertainment venues, they made up for in local firepower, which included Darryl Bey, who once produced events at Sunset. Lounge, and Marvin Woods, a chef who cooked a state dinner for the Obamas and launched former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” diet and fitness program.

The Vita presenters also touted a range of programs and benefits they said running the Sunset Lounge would bring.

The group announced that it would host a series of subscription concerts and offer dance lessons, R&B, karaoke and poetry nights, a Sunday gospel brunch, a community green market and jazz history lessons for students. of primary. Vita’s offer also included the creation of a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing assistance to the Northwest, a once vibrant black community in the city that has struggled with crime and economic decline in recent years.

On social media, race was part of the auction discussion

Commissioners had expressed frustration at the limited number of bidders, and James sought to address criticism that a non-black company was allowed to bid to run the salon.

“It’s a process,” he says. “We have launched a call for tenders (call for tenders). We cannot say in an RFP that “only black people can apply”. Only Hispanics can apply. That’s not how we do business in this town. It’s disheartening to me that some have chosen to play the race card over where we are today.”

For much of Monday’s meeting, the focus was on the merits of dueling offers.

But as commissioners began to dig into the pros and cons of those deals, commissioner Christina Lambert acknowledged what had only been referenced obliquely before – some black residents had taken to social media to lobby for a black group to gain management of a place that had once been so important to the city’s black community.

What followed was an unusually direct discussion of the racial aspects of management decision that was devoid of the oblique allusions and references that often mark political discussions of race.

Lambert had tried to explain how she viewed each bidder’s experiences, but cut off her remarks after someone in the audience scoffed.

“If we vote tonight, you have my vote,” Lambert said, stopping several times in what seemed like an effort to keep his cool. “But what I don’t like… it just looks like it just got ugly, and I don’t feel comfortable with it. I’ve seen some horrible things on social media this week. I saw the community split. We should work together.

While Lambert and other white commissioners said they heard residents lambasting them for potentially handing management of the Sunset to a non-black group, the city’s black elected officials — James and Commissioner Shalonda Warren — said they heard it too.

Residents seemed to understand that Warren looked favorably on Vita’s offer while James warmed to Mad Room’s offer.

“I also saw ugly things, things that I didn’t like and didn’t reflect my opinion,” Warren said. “When I extend my vote, make no mistake that my vote is not just because a team is black. My vote is because I believe the team I am voting for has the ability to do what we ask them to do.

Warren, who previously expressed her appreciation for Vita’s local connections, said she opposed any attempt to put her or Vita “in a box”.

James countered that view, saying criticism of Mad Room as outsiders who shouldn’t have the opportunity to run a historically black place was misplaced.

“It’s a two-way street,” the mayor said. “We can’t just say that because someone isn’t from here, they’re inferior. You can’t expect respectful treatment on one side – not putting someone in a box – and then putting the other side in a box.

Commissioner Cathleen Ward said she too had seen harsh comments on social media.

“When we hear things, and we’ve heard things, about ‘If you don’t choose that side, you’re a racist,’ as someone who’s not part of the African American race, that automatically makes me say , ‘Whoa, what the hell did I do wrong?’, Ward said. ‘But it also diminishes the real times when it’s an inherent bias in a system. We know all that it exists. We know that real racism exists. An inherent bias exists.

James, referring to remarks he made earlier in the evening, said the online remarks were “an attempt to intimidate the members of this dais”.

The mayor said that tactic wouldn’t work with him.

“I will say right now that I’m not one to be bullied,” he said. “I’ve been called a bunch of things. I was called anything but a child of God for the decisions I made on this platform. I’m not going to be bullied into taking a certain position because of “You’re a racist, you’re an Uncle Tom” threats or whatever you want to say. I will continue to do the best job I can every day and make the best decision I can and be transparent about it.

James eventually joined commissioner Joseph Peduzzi in backing Mad Room’s bid.

But after the announcement of the votes of commissioners Christy Fox, Ward, Warren and Lambert in favor of Vita, supporters of this offer stood, clapped and hugged.

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