Whenever my wife finishes reading the latest installment of Barker’s View, she looks up at me and says:
“Your name is shit in this town.”
And she’s right.
But the more I read of Eileen Zaffiro-Kean’s excellent exposé in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Tarnished Jewel – Daytona’s Troubled Beachside,” I realize that I’m in very distinguished company.
Yep. I suspect there will be more than a few once proud and powerful people in the Halifax area whose family name will be mud for the next hundred years after this histoire tragique plays out in the paper.
The public unmasking of local greed, mismanagement, and ineptitude – you know, the dirty underbelly of things – can have that effect.
When pondering the myriad problems of Daytona’s dilapidated beachside, it is important to remember that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And that, my friends, is the Curse of the Fun Coast.
For over 400-years, every pirate in the world has plundered and pillaged Florida – first at the business end of a cold steel Cutlass – and in modern times, at the sharp point of a speculative developers pen.
Trust me. Daytona Beach has seen its share of greedy bandits, treacherous rogues and thieving scalawags. Our boardrooms, government daises and bankruptcy courts are literally bunged with them.
I think a large part of the problem is our communal inability to remember the sins of the past or learn from history and avoid repeating the same terrible mistakes.
This weird form of convenient amnesia is most prevalent in our Ruling Class – the elected and appointed officials that we elevate to high public office, always with the naive expectation that they will protect our collective interests.
Then, We, The People, stand slack-jawed, watching in utter horror as our representatives ignore their lofty promises and grab for the same red-hot stove, over-and-over-and-over again.
Doing the same thing, time-and-again, hoping against hope for a different outcome.
Look, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer – obviously – but this strategic forgetfulness tells me that perhaps the problem goes deeper than ineffectual politicians and ‘darn-the-luck’ justifications from overpaid redevelopment flunkies.
I just can’t shake the feeling that something more ominous is at play.
In late 2014, the News-Journal ran a piece on the destruction of a building at the northwest corner of North Atlantic Avenue and Oakridge Boulevard.
The newspaper reported that crews were demolishing the former corporate offices of the once exalted, now-defunct Bray & Gillespie, Inc. – which for a time did business as Ocean Waters Development – and owned and operated numerous beachfront hotels in the Halifax area.
To make room for the just completed parking garage for the new Daytona Beach Hotel & Condominium, a massive beachfront convention center now under construction by Protogroup (don’t call them Russians), Inc.
You could cut the irony with a knife.
In typical fashion, our powers-that-be are hailing yet another Knight in Shining Armor with a grand panacea project which they hope will be the nostrum that finally saves us bumpkins from ourselves.
For several years, Bray & Gillespie were the undisputed “Big Dogs” on the strip – flying high and exuding success like sweat from a fat tourist’s brow.
With holdings representing almost a mile of oceanfront, the company was perhaps the largest real estate development and management firm in the region.
Principals Chuck Bray and Joe Gillespie, former investment bankers who moved to the Halifax area from Atlanta in 1998, were, at the time, near the top of the uber-wealthy donor class that regularly injected vast sums of money into local political campaigns.
The company’s top echelon rubbed elbows with our local ‘movers and shakers’ and counted themselves among Volusia’s exclusive coterie of influential political insiders – the “rich and powerful” to quote the News-Journal’s fitting descriptor.
Many speculate that these contributions and connections resulted in liberal zoning designations and other economic incentives which often allowed Bray & Gillespie to ‘flip’ beachfront properties at huge profits without ever breaking ground.
Then, one dark morning in the fall of 2008, Bray & Gillespie filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in U.S. District Court at Jacksonville.
The action involved numerous local properties and $415-million in debt.
It also signaled the death knell for a lot of local jobs.
Some speculated that Bray & Gillespie’s insolvency was the result of hurricane damage and expensive fights with insurance carriers, the foundering Florida real estate market, and other internal and external financial pressures.
Still others believed that unchecked hubris and open greed played a role as well.
In a prescient editorial on the news reports of the day, an anonymous contributor wrote:
“About time! These people had taken too much advantage of the low morals and predisposition for corruption of Daytona Beach public officials. A great business strategy, but it hurt Daytona’s future. The raping of Daytona Beach by a handful of tycoons with the very willing help a group of corrupt officials has just gone on for too long.”
Whether you put credence in the ravings of a nameless victim or not, given what we know now, it sure has an interesting ring to it, eh?
Add to that the curious case of California “businessman” and journeyman grifter, Bill Geary, who from the 1980’s invested in various Boardwalk properties, the Daytona Beach Pier and ultimately the Ocean Walk development.
In keeping with tradition, those who should have known better bought into Geary’s polished line of bullshit without performing the due diligence one expects from ostensibly bright redevelopment officials, or savvy investors.
Had Geary’s victims – and that includes you and I – bothered to look, they would have found all the tell-tale signs of an old timey confidence artist.
The late Daytona Beach businessman and long-time resident, Paul Politis, was quoted in a September 2014 News-Journal article, “There was a sales pitch from Geary, and locals bought into it without checking his financials and credibility,” said Politis.
“They just handed him the keys to the redevelopment area.”
Ultimately, Geary plead guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to commit mail fraud in connection with federal charges that he looted nearly $900,000 from an investors fund for Ocean Walk Shoppes, then used the money for his personal benefit, according to court records.
I think it’s important to remember this historical perspective when reading the News-Journal’s informative revelations on our troubled beachside.
Something tells me these aren’t the only examples of the ugly, behind-the-scenes machinations that continue to hamper progress on the beachside and elsewhere.
As I’ve said, this very dark story stinks like overripe Limburger.
But when is someone – anyone – with the authority to act going to do something about it?
In my view, it’s high time that those responsible for the gross negligence and mismanagement of these dubious and fruitless renewal efforts – including the incomprehensible ‘buy high, sell low’ strategies employed by both the city and county – be held personally accountable for violating their fiduciary responsibility to the public they serve.
And while we’re at it, perhaps we could give a second-effort at finding the $16.7 million that no one in a position of responsibility can adequately account for. How bow dah?
I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of watching highly compensated “revitalization experts,” like Daytona Beach Redevelopment Director Reed Berger and others – people who accept public funds to serve in the public interest – tap dancing on the front page of the newspaper and giving cockamamie explanations for the inexplicable.