Key Biscayne and Miami International Boat Show slug it out

Miami Marine Stadium (credit: Rick Bravo)
Miami Marine Stadium (credit: Rick Bravo)

Dueling public relations efforts by the Village of Key Biscayne and the Miami International Boat Show organizers accuse both sides of spreading false information regarding Marine Stadium & Park in Virginia Key. Parsing truth from spin can be rougher than navigating the choppy waters of Government Cut during a tropical storm.

At stake is the future of one of the last slices of public waterfront land that hasn’t succumbed to private development, as well as the continued existence of a 74-year-old event that draws nearly 100,000 boat enthusiasts annually to Miami-Dade County.

Back in January, the Miami city commission authorized a license agreement allowing the National Marine Manufacturers Association to host its annual boat show on Virginia Key in early 2016. In exchange, the NMMA will pay the city $1.1 million in rent plus half of the boat show’s net concessions and parking receipts. The city is investing $18 million to create an event space and park outside Marine Stadium, and last week commissioners approved several measures for the boat show’s move from the Miami Beach Convention Center, which is slated for renovation later this year.

Tadd Schwartz and Kelly Penton

Tadd Schwartz and Kelly Penton

However, Key Biscayne is suing the city to stop the event from happening in Virginia Key, citing massive traffic congestion and damage to the aquatic environment surrounding Marine Stadium. The village council and the city commission have mediation talks next week, but the public relations battle has gotten ferocious in recent weeks.

Leading the charge for Key Biscayne is Schwartz Media Strategies, a Miami-based public relations firm that represents Miami’s Downtown Development Authority and several real estate developers and led a successful campaign in 2012 to win voter support for keeping the Sony Open Tennis tournament in the village on a long-term basis. In March, the Key Biscayne Village Council unanimously voted to pay Schwartz a $8,000 monthly retainer to lead its campaign against the boat show’s relocation to Virginia Key.

Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Lindsay told The Real Deal that the village hired Schwartz to help force Miami city officials and boat show representatives to reveal their dealings to the public.

“We are a very small, lean government,” Lindsay said. “We don’t have a public information officer. Our goal is to put forth accurate information. We are not making stuff up.”

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The NMMA last month retained ASGK Public Strategies, a national firm that specializes in crisis management, and that recently plucked former Schwartz Media Senior Account Executive Kelly Penton as director of its Miami office. Penton also worked as communications director for ex-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz from 2001 to 2009.

Officials for NMMA declined to comment, but Penton told TRD that the association brought ASGK onboard to counter “an aggressive campaign of mistruths” by the village and its public relations firm.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation put out there regarding the boat show going to Marine Stadium,” Penton said. “The boat show has typically just done promotional [public relations] for the event. But dealing with [Key Biscayne] required a firm that is experienced in public affairs and crisis management.”

The other goal is to remind local residents and elected officials about the boat show’s 74-year-history, Penton explained. Should Key Biscayne succeed in derailing the boat show’s relocation to Virginia Key, Miami-Dade County risks losing $600 million in economic activity and 55,000 jobs, she said.

“This is the location that best suits their logistical needs,” Penton said. “It is also an opportunity to bring life back to that location.”

Earlier this week, Penton put out a lengthy press release to “set the record straight” on a number of issues brought up by Key Biscayne. For instance, NMMA has been working with the police and fire departments in Miami-Dade County, the city and the village to develop a plan that will minimize traffic disruptions during the boat show, the press release noted.

Penton said boat show organizers are also working with the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, the county’s Department of Environmental Resource Management and other environmental regulatory agencies to ensure any sea life in the Marine Stadium’s basin is protected.

Tadd Schwartz, president of Schwartz Media, said NMMA hired ASGK to whitewash the damage the boat show will do to Virginia Key and shield the multi-billion dollar boating industry from public scrutiny. He said that even the best designed traffic plan will be ill-equipped to address boat show traffic and that a Corps. of Engineers report concluded the boat show would cause substantial harm to the ecosystem.

“Part of our public relations campaign,” Schwartz said, “includes safeguarding the environment and preserving the island’s appeal among the seven million-plus people who visit each year from across Miami-Dade County and beyond.”