Pahokee lakefront complex suffering delays

PAHOKEE — The partners who have a signed but not yet approved sublease for the state-owned campground, marina and restaurant facilities on Lake Okeechobee say they’re now contemplating legal action against the City of Pahokee. Renovation projects prepaid for by state grants of over $2 million have been continuously delayed, poorly executed or mismanaged, they say, holding the investors back from taking over operations to fully reopen the complex.

These setbacks, if not rectified, apparently will prevent the public recreation area from being ready to be fully reopened to citizens, fishermen, or campground and marina tenants anytime soon — meaning, beyond the 2019-2020 winter tourist season.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
The deck behind the restaurant affords a wide-open view of Lake Okeechobee and the marina, but the understructure must be redone, the ERH partners contend.

That is going to cost the partners as well as the city itself any potential revenue from another tourist season. City Manager Chandler Williamson has sought and received several extensions of “deliverables” dates set in the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity grants but defends the progress that’s been made. And the sublease deal itself still is waiting for final approval by the Board of Trustees of the Florida Internal Improvement Trust Fund — which is the governor and his cabinet.

So say Robert Lambert, the president and CEO of Cruise America who is the managing member of ERH, and one of his partners, Mark Miller, a mariner who has lived aboard his private vessel at the Pahokee Marina for three years. They speak for the trio behind ERH, which also includes Robert A. Miller Sr. (no relation to Mark). He owned the famous Oyster House restaurant in Everglades City that was leveled by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, one month before the contract was signed with the City of Pahokee.

The sublease applies to the lakefront properties owned by the Florida Internal Improvement Trust Fund Board of Trustees and administered by the State of Florida Division of State Lands. It calls for the area to be operated in a sort of partnership with the city and state, where each would share in the profits (if any). The northern part of the grounds would remain a public park; whereas the secured campground, marina and public restaurant would be run for profit by ERH.

Pahokee received two state DEO grants of $1.2 million and $990,000, but the partners say the city is nowhere near having the planned renovation projects and preparations, which those funds were intended for, completed. Interviewed at the complex with Mr. Miller on the second anniversary of ERH signing the sublease with the city (Thursday, Oct. 10), Mr. Lambert later conducted a brief tour and described some of the problems, starting inside the restaurant and proceeding out to the new lakeside deck.

“What preparation they have done, other than what we were involved in, is all wrong. For instance, the foundation on this deck: It’s not how the engineer that the city hired to do it (designed it),” said Mr. Lambert. “Bill Sadler is the engineer who’s done everything, all the biotechnical and bathymetry, that’s been done here since 2005,” said Mr. Miller. “The county hired him to do the study when they put in the wave attenuation wall, so he’s certainly vetted. He knows that we’re on 13 feet of muck. He specified that they drill down, the pilings go down 25 feet with 5 feet of penetration… into the caprock.”

The partners say the city wanted a second opinion and then hired a different engineer.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Robert Lambert (right), managing partner of Everglades Reserves Holdings LLC, shows where the childproof lock that he’d replaced once already was ripped out and thrown in the lake by a woman who couldn’t figure out how to open it. Partner Mark Miller is at left.

“They went down 3 feet, poured a 2-by-2-foot slab of concrete, then they took a 10-by-10 timber and put some rebar through it… and then they poured another foot of concrete on top of it and they built this deck. This deck — not if, but when — will continue to sink,” said Mr. Miller.

“They did it their way, and pretty much everything they’ve done their way is wrong,” said Mr. Lambert.

“They haven’t even addressed what was done wrong and the improprieties from the first $1 million-2 grant,” said Mr. Miller.

“We have 29 fewer campground sites available for rent than we did starting back at the first DEO grant,” said Mr. Lambert.

“Out of 116 there were only 49 that had full hookup, meaning power, water and sewer, and… now they’re down to 29, so we lost 20,” Mr. Miller said.

“Meanwhile, every other campground around is sold out for the season. This one won’t. And this really isn’t a campground now; this is a trailer park. Now let’s talk about the marina. We’ve got 110 slips out there. We have two piers that are completely unusable, Pier E and Pier F. We don’t have one more slip now than we did before, at the start of this $990,000 DEO grant. It was supposed to repair, renovate the slips and get the electricity going,” said Mr. Lambert.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
This trench was dug to replace and install new utility lines to the end of the campground but was filled in too soon, the partners say, and now is becoming overgrown.

“Because the natives stole the copper wire; they destroyed the docks to take the copper wire out. Our electricians started rewiring the docks, we had wire sitting here, and they stole the wire, coils of wire. At least they took it before we put it into the docks!” said Mr. Miller.

The two partners went on to tell a litany of more tales about how other aspects of the planned improvements have been botched or sabotaged.

When it comes to their next steps, Mr. Lambert said, “Well, we’ll see. There’s a lot more to fill in between here and there (filing a lawsuit).” He added, however, that he’s not leaving town anytime soon. “I do have significant sums invested here.”

But overall the ERH partners are extremely discouraged. “It’s been a total disaster,” Mr. Lambert said.

Editor’s note: For story on the city’s viewpoint on the marina saga, click HERE.

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