Published in the February, 2011 issue of the Biscayne Times newspaper:
The streets are lined with stout glass towers, perfect palm trees planted in perfect rows, private boat slips, golf courses, jogging paths, faux-Mediterranean townhomes, and all the usual emblems of an upscale, South Florida suburban community. This is Aventura, an unmistakably American version of paradise where stray foliage doesn’t stand a chance, zoning codes seem like scripture, and residential enclaves boast more security than a South American drug ranch. As one of Miami-Dade County’s youngest and most successful municipalities, Aventura has been featured in international magazines, hosted presidential candidates, courted celebrities, and is regularly touted as the City of Excellence.
Such cachet did not grow spontaneously. Aventura’s image of luxury and prestige has been skillfully crafted and professionally marketed since before the city even had a charter of its own. However, some say the Aventura brand has been so heavily promoted and protected over the years — by developer-backed marketers and image-conscious government administrators — that troublesome civic issues are often whitewashed, critics sidelined, and small-business owners left without a voice.
“What is this place called Aventura? Who is Aventura? What are the businesses here? How many people do they employ? What’s the trending on commercial real estate? What’s the vacancy rate? How’s the city doing? How many condos are under water?” These are just some of the questions that real-estate franchise recruiter and self-proclaimed social entrepreneur Emil Hubschman wants answered. At age 75, the voluble Philadelphia transplant should be taking life easy, strolling the local golf courses or cruising the world. Instead he’s fighting to breathe new life into an organization he founded 14 years ago, the Aventura/Sunny Isles Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Derailed by the sudden death of its CEO from cancer in 2002, and several subsequent years of neglect by interim managers, the chamber, once 450 members strong, has dwindled in size. Now Hubschman wants to get it back on course. And like any good chamber of commerce, he wants it to be the voice of small businesses in his area.
Aventura begins around NE 176th Street in the south and ends at the Broward County line. The FEC railroad tracks mark the western boundary. To the east, the Intracoastal Waterway sparkles along the full length of the city. One recent afternoon Hubschman drove around the far less sparkly commercial western half of the city (abutting Biscayne Boulevard) pointing out to a BT reporter one troubled shopping plaza after another. “Look at this place!” he exclaims. “You could shoot a cannon through here! A real estate agent had a big office over there. Gone. A restaurant used to be right there. Gone. An eyewear place moved out over there. This plaza here is the Promenade, which seems to be dying a horrible death…. Here’s another little strip center where nobody shops…. And over here is a whole network of empty stores…. This is the kind of thing I want to get a handle on.”
Then Hubschman adds soberly: “But the real challenge in Aventura is the mall.”
He’s speaking, of course, of the thriving Aventura Mall, which sits like a giant pantheon off Biscayne Boulevard, drawing an estimated 24 million shoppers annually. Built in 1983 by pioneering Aventura developer Don Soffer and his associates, the mall is the fifth largest in America, generating revenue greater than the GDP of many African nations — roughly $8 billion per year — and providing the City of Aventura with millions in property taxes each year. (For the fiscal year that ended in September 2009, the mall paid some $6.7 million to the city, more than 40 percent of all property taxes collected. That covered roughly 18 percent of the city’s operating expenses.)
The mall is so popular with tourists that foreign visitors comprise 20 percent of the traffic. In fact, 7 million more visitors arrived at the Aventura Mall than at Miami International Airport in 2009.
“But the mall,” Hubschman stresses, “is not Aventura. There are no local businesses in the mall. It’s a regional destination and is always packed. But if you go to any given strip center, it looks like death warmed over. We need to help local shopping plazas become worthwhile destinations, too. These businesses are part of the community, not to be ignored and treated like some unwanted stepchild.”
Hubschman’s fight for the little guy is hard not to love, and his passion is endearing. Tall, lean, and exasperated, he cuts a distinct profile, like a harried college professor, or perhaps Ted Turner. When he speaks about small business, his thoughts seem to outpace his tongue, compelling him to stop now and then, reconsider, and begin anew.
But with a touch of the firebrand about him, he has for many years, he admits, been viewed as something of a lightning rod in the community, operating in the shadow of Aventura’s bigger, more influential business organization, the Aventura Marketing Council (AMC).
Created in 1988 by an elite group of businessmen and big-name developers — among them Turnberry Associates, the Trump Group, Mystic Pointe, Coscan, and Humana Hospital — the AMC’s original purpose was simple: promote the then-unincorporated corner of northeast Dade County as an upscale, business-friendly, resort-style community.
Rather than market their individual projects, developers realized it would be more effective to promote the area as a destination, to sell a lifestyle instead of a product. Brochures, a magazine, a local TV talk show, sponsorships, networking events, and other efforts helped them spread the word about their blossoming area. There were other reasons for forming the nonprofit, too, like lobbying the county for better services.
After area residents voted to incorporate and form the City of Aventura in 1995, the AMC’s role shifted. As part of a self-governing municipality with name recognition, prestige, and a healthy tax base, large-scale marketing campaigns slowly became less central to the group’s mission. Consequently, the AMC today refers to itself on its website as “a grass-roots business organization similar to a chamber of commerce.”
Hubschman counters that, in reality, it is nothing like a chamber: “A chamber’s main purpose is to advocate for local businesses and residents. We go to the city with issues and try to get them solved. The AMC doesn’t do that.”
Former Aventura Mayor Jeff Perlow agrees. In an interview with the BT at his Aventura law office, he holds up a sheet of paper showing a list of ten things that all good chambers do. “The AMC,” he says “does only a fraction of what a chamber does.”
Perlow drew up his list because he may provide office space and play a future role in the “new” chamber Hubschman is now working to create — if it can deliver on his ten-point list. Speaking of his 1996 campaign for a commission seat — against a candidate involved with, and supported by, the AMC — Perlow asks, “What exactly did the AMC do? They threw nice luncheons, they had nice breakfasts, they brought in good speakers, and they did very well. But they were pretty much developer-driven…. Clearly the AMC, prior to incorporation, did a very good job marketing Aventura as a destination. But if you take away the developers and get down to the level of family-owned businesses, most can’t afford to join the AMC.”
With annual fees ranging from $475 to $16,000, most membership tiers in the AMC are reserved for those in the upper strata of the business world. A survey of the organization’s database shows 429 members. Excluding professionals like doctors and lawyers, roughly 30 percent of those could be characterized as small, independently owned businesses. The rest are mostly franchises, municipal governments, schools, developers, financial companies, or other corporate entities.
What do those members get for their money? A seat on the AMC’s board for the highest-paying members, two monthly networking meetings, and coverage in the weekly Aventura News.
Twenty years ago, according to the Miami Herald, the AMC “helped local community newspaper chain Miller Publishing/Community Newspapers found the Aventura News to publicize Marketing Council businesses.” Eight full pages, including the front cover, are paid for by the AMC and feature articles about the group and its members, mainly AMC meetings, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and what appear to be news stories reporting on a specific member’s business activities.
The AMC makes detailed promises of Aventura News “coverage” according to membership level. For example, at the Executive Level (yearly fee: $2750), “the company is given a half-page feature story (value $750) and seven quarter-page stories (value $2100). Total advertising value $2850.”
In 2001 the paper finally began identifying AMC-generated coverage, adding a small AMC logo to “purchased” pages. That logo, however, does not consistently appear near AMC stories, and some feel that the paper is misleading.
Michael Miller, co-owner of Miller Publishing, did not respond to requests for comment. Back in 2001, however, he characterized the weekly as a “newsletter for an organization,” telling the Herald: “Our primary mission with the Aventura Newsis to promote the Aventura Marketing Council. If the newspaper were owned by the Aventura Marketing Council, or if we changed the paper’s name, there would never be a question. Usually the people who have a problem with it are newspaper people.”
Newspapers that sell their editorial space may irk journalists and raise questions of integrity, but critics say the AMC’s control of the News simply illustrates the way the organization has come to dominate the public dialogue in Aventura, and reveals the incestuous relationship between the AMC, big business, and government officials.
For example, city Commissioner Bob Diamond writes a column for the News. Dan Palmer, the paper’s editor, sits on the AMC’s board. Aventura city manager Eric Soroka also sits on the AMC’s board, as does city Commissioner Michael Stern, whose company operates the group’s website.
Attorney and lobbyist Cliff Schulman, a regular face in the News, is chairman of the AMC’s board of directors. He also works for the law firm that acts as Aventura’s city attorney. In other words, he represents the business interests of the AMC’s members while his firm simultaneously advises the city on legal matters.
Conflict of interest? Schulman says no, and defends his position by providing the BT with an e-mail from the executive director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which states, “I see no conflict of interest preventing Mr. Schulman, a shareholder with [law firm] Weiss Serota, from continuing to serve as chairman of the Aventura Marketing Council.” Schulman also points to legal documentation from the Florida Commission on Ethics backing up that position.
More curious, perhaps, is city manager Eric Soroka’s seat on the AMC’s board. The potential conflict with that arrangement is explained by Jack Pinkowski, director of Nova Southeastern University’s Institute of Government and Public Policy. “One of the [goals] of Aventura’s commission-manager form of government,” Pinkowski says, “is to isolate administrators from political influence…. This is an area where the manager could find a conflict of interest between proactive advocacies of the interests of the business community versus the mandates as determined by the elected representatives of the people — i.e., the city commission…. Still, many cities have close relationships with groups that represent private entities…. It is appropriate for cities to have representatives on such bodies. But it is not normally the chief administrative officer….” (Soroka did not respond to requests for comment.)
Former city commissioner and one-time Aventura/Sunny Isles Beach Chamber of Commerce president Jay Beskin views the AMC’s status as that of a civic institution. “They forged a bond…with the city manager and several of the commissioners,” Beskin says, “and as a result have become significant partners of the City of Aventura. They have a significant amount of influence, I would say.”
Beskin adds that the chamber was created in 1996 in an effort to address the issue. However, he acknowledges that the effort was unsuccessful. “The chamber tried to work with the city and the chamber was thwarted,” he says. “And I think the chamber was thwarted because the AMC viewed it as this upstart organization that was attempting to encroach upon its bailiwick and its influence. And it succeeded.”
The AMC’s success at becoming an Aventura institution is largely attributed to the talents of its 21-year president, Elaine Adler. Formerly with the North Dade Chamber of Commerce, she is said to have risen from part-time secretary to chamber president, and increased that organization’s membership from a few dozen to a few hundred during her tenure. Recruited to the AMC based on that achievement, she led the group from obscurity to prosperity, and is praised by nearly all who speak of her — even AMC critics.
But those same critics ask whether Adler’s skills are really worth more than a quarter of a million dollars per year. A 2007 tax form lists the AMC’s total revenue as $488,256, while Adler’s compensation that year was $263,113. That’s more than Aventura’s city manager, mayor, and six commissioners earn collectively. By comparison, the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches had total revenues of $1.5 million in 2007, and its president made $112,361. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s revenue that same year was nearly $3.9 million, while its president earned $171,300. Florida’s Latin Chamber had $3.7 million in revenue in 2008, and its executive director made just $58,010. (Adler did not respond to repeated messages requesting an interview.)
Of greater concern to some Aventura residents is the lack of serious, sustained local news coverage. The Aventura News, these residents say, avoids critical coverage of the city. Indeed, Adler herself describes the weekly as a “good-news newspaper.” As she put it to the Herald: “You read the Aventura News once and you see no rapes, no robberies, no murders, no rip-offs, no drug deals.”
Other locally distributed newspapers, including the Miami Herald, have limited resources for reporting on city affairs. There is, of course, Aventura Magazine, but it deals mostly with luxury living and doesn’t produce investigate pieces — not surprising given that it is co-owned by Aventura city Commissioner Michael Stern.
His company, Stern Bloom Media, for years has published the City of Aventura’s annual report, as well as a bi-annual guide to local businesses and events, which the city buys from him. To facilitate those transactions, his fellow commissioners have granted him a waiver from Miami-Dade County’s ethics code.
Aiming to break through that wall of happy news, one longtime journalist, who requested anonymity, launched a website in 2009 with the goal of providing “real news coverage” to Aventurans. He suspended operations a little over a year later, citing, among other things, “institutional resistance to news coverage…. The root of the issue is the all-controlling marketing council, which views all news coverage as a threat to its marketing message. It influences the thinking of merchants and public officials who’ve embraced that mindset and will tolerate only controlled happy talk.”
That “institutional resistance to news coverage” is reiterated by Aventura resident Nancy Lee, co-operator of the popular political blog Eye on Miami. “The city clerk is married to the city manager,” she says. “They have erected an iron curtain. If you write to any of the commissioners or the mayor, the clerk intercepts all the e-mails and only forwards some of them.”
To back up that claim, Lee produces a series of e-mails she wrote to various administrators showing the chain of contact. The mayor and commissioners’ phone numbers, meanwhile, are not listed on the city’s website, nor is there a listing for a city spokesperson or media liaison. The BT’s follow-up e-mail to a public-records request asking for additional information was ignored by the clerk, as was an e-mail to the city manager. Phone calls to the clerk went straight to voice mail.
Another instance of apparent municipal self-consciousness involves prolific South Florida history-book author Seth Bramson. In 2009 he was commissioned to write a history of Aventura. Government administrators, deciding that they wanted to change much of the book’s content, put the project on hold for an indefinite period and the book, at this point, remains unpublished.
Iron curtains and bureaucratic elusiveness prompt another question: Does anyone care?
This past November, Aventura’s municipal elections were canceled because no one challenged the city’s incumbent mayor and three commissioners. All four were automatically reelected. In fact, only about half of Aventura’s estimated 30,000 residents are registered voters, and no more than about 16 percent of them regularly turn out to cast ballots in city elections.
“That’s the thing about gated communities,” says Emil Hubschman. “People don’t vote. There’s virtually no sense of community in Aventura. Most people who live here didn’t grow up here and don’t work here. Others are retired or semi-retired, or they’re snowbirds who spend only part of the year here. They come and go — from all over the country and the world. They’re not stakeholders in the community. They mostly just care that taxes are low.”
Taxes, in fact, were the main reason Aventura broke away from Miami-Dade County in the first place. Feeling as though they were putting a lot more money into the county pot than they were getting back in services, the well-to-do residents overwhelmingly voted to incorporate in 1995, giving themselves control of their own money and the ability to set their own property tax rate, known as millage. Today that rate is just 1.72, the lowest of any municipality in the county, meaning Aventurans are taxed $1.72 per $1000 of their homes’ assessed value. The City of Miami’s millage rate, by contrast, is 8.64.
That bargain rate is made possible by some 80 condo towers, which allow a dense population of above-average earners to cram themselves into just 2.7 square miles. Taxes from the Aventura Mall and a few other large commercial properties grow the coffers, too. And of course the newly installed and highly contentious red-light cameras now contribute handsomely to the city’s funds, bringing in $3,053,000 during the last two fiscal years alone.
Run like a blue-chip company, Aventura is a well-managed city with an abundance of high-quality services. In fact CNN ranked Aventura as a contender for “Best Places to Live” in 2007 and 2009. The BT’s very own Aventura correspondent, Shari Lynn Rothstein-Kramer, thinks the average person who lives in the city is exceedingly happy. “It’s a very nice place to live,” she says, “unless you want a lot of funkiness. There’s no funky here.”
Ex-commissioner Jay Beskin is fond of his city, too, describing it as “upscale, safe, pleasant, clean, beautiful, and a desirable place to live.” On the other hand, he laments its sameness. “Our moniker is City of Aventura, but we’re not a city because a city represents diversity, different people, sometimes some tension as to how things should proceed — the messy part of democracy. Differences are healthy. Instead we just seem to have this homogeneity. It’s unhealthy not to have civic organizations or messy politics or investigative reporting.”
It is within this complacent, vertical suburb that Emil Hubschman seeks to relaunch his chamber of commerce within the next 60 days, aiming to create a trusted gateway to the community (like a Better Business Bureau, only hyper local), with a welcome center, newsletter, updated website, and cell phone app. Homeowner and condo associations will get free memberships, he says, to help “close the loop” between locally owned businesses and residents.
Much of his philosophy for the chamber is based on the “shop local” movement. “When you buy from a chain store,” he says, “most of the money goes to the home office somewhere far away. It doesn’t stay in the community. That’s the main theme of chambers all over the world — shop local. You get personalized service at local stores. They know you, and you build a relationship. You help to build a sense of community.”
Word around town is that the Aventura mayor and city manager are open to working more closely with the chamber. “It’s a new day,” Hubschman beams.
As for the AMC, he says, “It’s not either or. Businesses can join both organizations. The AMC has done a wonderful job promoting Aventura. I give them a lot of credit. But the developer phase is over. The bubble machine has stopped. Now it’s time to get serious about local business. It’s time for a true chamber. That’s part of the maturation of a city.”
Read this article on the Biscayne Times website.