Assessing iPic

The story of iPic in Delray is a long and complicated one.

So let’s sit for a spell and unpack a little of it because it’s important to try and understand.

The CRA board chose iPic over three other proposals in August 2013. That was six years ago.

Ipic’s winning bid promised a theater and office space on land that once housed the library and the Chamber of Commerce.

But the history of that RFP goes back even further than 2013.

I was on the commission in the early 2000s when we moved forward with a complicated transaction to move the chamber and library and free up the land for redevelopment. The goal was to give the chamber and library new and better facilities replacing what had become dilapidated buildings.

Both of those goals were achieved—with the chamber occupying beautiful space under the Old School Square Parking Garage and the library occupying larger space on West Atlantic Avenue. The library’s board believed that the library would better serve the needs of the community on West Atlantic.

We agreed.

It was not an easy decision and it was not without controversy either.

I remember hearing from residents who didn’t want the library to move to the West Atlantic corridor. One citizen put it bluntly: “why would you put the library out there with those people?”

Yep, that was said.

It just made us want to move it more.

Still, the transaction was a complicated one since the Chamber had a lot of years left on a very sweet lease and there were a lot of moving parts and entities involved.

But it got done, because that was an era where people were able to work together. I sure miss those days.

Once the deal was struck,  an RFP was issued and awarded to a group that envisioned a mixed use project and a hotel. But the Great Recession hit and the deal never got off the ground. Eventually, the CRA issued a new RFP and that led to the iPic deal.

It should be noted that CRA staff liked the iPic bid, but did not rank it first. There was another theater concept—an European style theater if I remember correctly—that they ranked ahead of iPic.

But once the Boca-based iPic was chosen, the CRA staff embraced the concept and worked to make it happen.

The proposal sparked controversy—as so many projects do—over concerns about traffic, design and parking. Those are the usual bugaboos—all understandable.

Mix in personalities, ancient feuds, politics, misinformation and the difficulty of getting things done and it took nearly six years from awarding the RFP to opening night. When iPic won the deal the expected opening date was 2016—it took twice that long.

It seems like the entire town showed up for the grand opening party which may have been the best party Delray has ever seen.

The reviews were mostly glowing—the building was next level beautiful, with living walls of plants, striking art work and plush seating.

The office space—still in the process of being leased—is also beautiful and much needed in our downtown to complement and diversify our abundance of food and beverage options.

Since then, I’ve been to iPic twice. Most of my friends have gone as well— a time or two.

We tend to agree—it’s a good experience but very expensive and not something we see ourselves doing regularly and many of us are movie fans who go frequently.

That said, I supported iPic and hoped the concept would succeed creating a new use downtown and adding jobs to our city since there were promises—albeit sometimes vague ones– to move their corporate headquarters here. It’s important for cities to be business friendly and to have good economies. That doesn’t mean compromising your ethics, selling your soul or offering back breaking incentives. But it does mean hanging an “open for business” sign at your City Hall and being reasonable. It also means welcoming debate.

That said,  I and many others were disappointed in the tone of the debate surrounding iPic.

And while I sympathized with the views and concerns of opponents, I thought more than a few crossed the line with personal attacks on those who supported the project. I also thought some elected officials pushed it by supporting the use but adding costly conditions (outside the scope of the RFP) making it more difficult to succeed.

I felt so bad about the treatment, that I invited iPic CEO Hamid Hashemi to lunch to tell him that despite the vitriol Delray was a nice place and many people wished him and his company success.

So when the news broke last week that iPic missed an interest payment on over $200 million in debt and may have to consider bankruptcy it stirred a lot of emotions. This week, bankruptcy became the path and iPic will operate as usual until it either restructures or is sold.

There was the usual chorus of “I told you so’s” and a slew of people wishing the company ill will which I think is wrong.

Do we really want to see a company fail? Do we want to see an empty building in the heart of our downtown? Do we want to see iPic staff lose their jobs because management loaded the company up with debt?

I don’t think so.

You know who should be mad?
iPic shareholders who have seen their stock plummet.

The retired teachers who depend on their Alabama pension fund also have a right to be angry and concerned since they funded a large chunk of that debt.

And yes, citizens of Delray are justified in feeling disappointed. Our downtown’s real estate is precious. It’s not a good feeling to see a high profile project threatened.

The initial financial blogs quoted iPic as saying sales dipped as a result of the government shut down earlier this year. That really doesn’t pass the smell test.

Round two explanations made more sense: iPic was a trendsetter but other chains are loading up on the luxury too—often at lower ticket prices. So there’s competition in an industry being disrupted by streaming services. Add crushing debt to that equation and all the innovation in the world or the biggest rooftop bar won’t save you.

Still, many people in this community supported the downtown iPic. I did.

While pricey, we liked the idea of another use in the downtown and we liked the idea of Class A office space and a corporate headquarters too.

We liked that iPic offered corporate event space, special events and unique programming through partnerships with entities such as Netflix. We trusted their projections and studies that showed that this market could support an iPic so close to the Mizner Park location.

We liked that business publications were featuring the company and that it was able to go public and was considered an innovator in its space.

So seeing it fall into bankruptcy is no reason to celebrate.

This is where strong communities come together and make lemonade out of lemons. I hope and trust we will do just that.

So what can we learn from this?

iPic Delray has not struggled because of parking or traffic woes.

The local theater was not challenged because downtown Delray isn’t strong enough to support the use.

Clearly, the business model is deeply flawed.

But other chains are managing to figure it out.

Living Room Theater at FAU regularly sells out offering offbeat, independent and foreign fare.

Alamo Drafthouse and other innovative chains seem to be doing well and drawing crowds.

I hope iPic finds a good strong buyer with solid vision and a healthy balance sheet. I also hope the Alabama teachers don’t get crushed in the process. That one might be tough…

It would be great if the Class A office space that was built gets leased and brings much needed jobs to our city.

Regardless, whatever happens we should find ways to work together to pick up the pieces and make this a success somehow, someway. That’s what strong towns do.

What a concept, huh?

 

 

 

Resilience + Intelligence=Something Special

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer died last week.

I will miss him.

Not because we shared common views on politics—we didn’t. But because he was an intelligent and brave voice and those are rare traits in these days of belligerence, alternative facts, echo chambers and blind loyalty.

Mr. Krauthammer did not follow anyone blindly. He was conservative, but independent.

He had people he admired but his admiration was rooted in ideas and ideals and that’s a welcome approach that helps to avoid a cult of personality.

Krauthammer was in Boca Raton two years ago to keynote the annual Boca-Delray Community Event of the American Friends of Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross).

I had a chance to attend but had a conflict. I’m sorry I missed it. I didn’t know his voice would be silenced so soon. At 68. Cancer is just terrible. .

There are scores of great writings from the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, but here are two of my favorites.

“You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures,” he wrote in the introduction to his memoir, “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics” (2013). “Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.”

How true, we’d be wise to listen.

 

As someone who was paralyzed while a young man in medical school, Krauthammer was an inspiration and a living lesson in resilience. He loved the Bernard Malamud book “The Natural” in which the protagonist Roy Hobbs is shot by a crazed fan which derails Hobbs’ baseball career.

 

“No one knows why Hobbs is shot,” he wrote. “It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning of knowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether — and how — we ever come back.”

 

In those few beautifully written sentences, Krauthammer covers fate, human vulnerability and resilience.

It’s sad that he’s gone. It’s nice to read someone you disagree with but respect. Someone who challenges your beliefs, makes you think and makes you believe that intelligent and respectful debate is still possible.

Rest In Peace. And thank you.

But For Leadership Florida

Dr. Frank Luntz gives us the numbers: we are a nation divided.

I spent the weekend in Sarasota at the annual meeting of Leadership Florida.
Leadership Florida is a statewide organization devoted to building community.

That’s not easy  in a giant and diverse state. It’s a monumental task.
Because not only is Florida huge, but many of us come from other parts of the nation and world and so we may not identity the Sunshine State as “home.”

I’m an example, I am a New Yorker and identify strongly with the northeast. But Florida is home. I’ve lived here 10 more years than I lived in New York.
Still, while I’ve always loved Delray Beach, Leadership Florida helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the entirety of Florida.

I’ve learned that we live in a remarkable state. Florida has a rich history, an exciting present and a very promising future. We also face some complex challenges ranging from rising seas to political division.
But what Leaderahip Florida proves is that if good people come together in a spirit of community they can work together to solve problems and seize opportunities.
Now I realize that sounds Pollyanna and simplistic, but the truth is these leaders from the world’s of business, politics, academia, health care, energy and the non profit world– who range from liberal to ultra conservative– show how people can work together across ideological lines.

The annual meeting weekend is jam packed with learning sessions that often raise provocative questions.
This year, we listened to Michael Smith, a former Obama administration official and executive director of My Brothers Keeper, Dr. Frank Luntz, who shared some sobering news on our divisions and a path forward, former George W. Bush White House photographer Eric Draper, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, a social media expert who talked about what’s good about social media at a time when all we’re hearing is how it’s ruining our kids, our brains and our country and a raucous panel on the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles.
The sessions provoke lots of thinking and healthy debate.
And that’s good. It’s what we’re often lacking as we talk past each other.

I’ve long felt that if you populated Congress or the state legislature with a random sampling of Leadership Florida graduates, you’d see a whole lot of problems solved.
Oh there would be arguments  and differences galore, but I’m certain that these leaders would always find a way forward.
We need more of what Leadership Florida offers: intelligent debate, treating your allies with humility  and your opponents with respect.

Bits from the weekend:
–We had dinner with former White House photographer Eric Draper who chronicled all 8 years of George W. Bush’s term. I loved his session so getting to sit next to Mr. Draper at dinner was extra special. He talked about the Bush family, the rigorous nature of the job (over 1 million images shot, international travel and the pressure of not missing history as it unfolds).

Also at our table, Gregg Pettersmeyer who served two presidents (Nixon and Bush 41) in senior advisory positions and Capt. Charlie Plumb who spent 2,103 days as a POW during the Vietnam War and is a founder of the Navy’s “top gun” school. He’s a remarkable man and beyond nice.
We got lucky with our seat assignment because my Leadership Florida classmate Wendy Spencer is now CEO of the organization after serving as director of National Service for two presidents. She hooked us up. (Class XXIV perks). These types of opportunities are also called “but for Leadership Florida” experiences. They’re invaluable.
–We got some insight from Claire Diaz Ortiz on how as a Twitter executive she helped get the Pope on social media. She talked about the positive aspects of social media at a time when the technology is under siege. It was a welcome respite. But concerns linger about data privacy and social media’s role in sowing division.

–Dr. Frank Luntz talked about public opinion and reminded us how far institutions and professions have sunk in the minds of the public. (More on his findings in a future blog). But right now, elected officials, bankers, lawyers, journalists and CEO’s are held in very low regard.
And we enjoyed a great presentation on autonomous cars with advocates (the co-founder of Voyage which serves The Villages) and the entertaining Alex Roy president of the Human Driving Association. (More on that too in the future).
Hope everyone had a great Father’s Day! If you can, check our Leadership Florida. Apply for the cornerstone class program or Connect if you’re a young professional. It’s a worthwhile investment of your time.

A Better Way

Bullhorns_620

Last week was exhausting and you could see the divisions in Delray writ large.

But what is often lost when emotions run hot are the commonalities.

In this city, there is one common thread that trumps (sorry for the word trump) everything else.

People love Delray Beach. And that’s a good thing.

Some like a vibrant growing Delray; some might prefer it a tad or a whole lot quieter. But the concern is there, so is the passion.

No “side” is right and no side is wrong.

It’s a debate that plays out in towns and cities throughout the country. But many people I know long for a more intelligent, fact-based debate in which all stakeholders can feel like they’ve been heard and respected. We should have a process that doesn’t feel so bruising and nasty.

But we don’t have that yet, not by a long shot. Here’s what we have as illustrated by the recent iPic debate.

Project comes to town.

Economic development fans get excited.

Jobs! Tax base! Cleaning up a blighted property! Yay!

But they’re not allowed to get excited or to enjoy the moment for longer than a nanosecond. And heaven forbid if we give the economic development team a pat on the back for bringing the opportunity to town.

See, unless the new project or company is being built on acres of virgin land nowhere near anything or anybody —they can expect opposition.

Why? Because inevitably they will “need” something; two feet more of land, a liberal interpretation of some requirement—something. And inevitably, there will be impacts associated with the proposal (and benefits as well).

And then all hell breaks loose.

No exceptions!

What are they trying to pull?!!

Suddenly, the company or developer becomes the “deep pocketed” corruptive force sent here to pillage and take advantage of the helpless resident/taxpayers.

Sigh….

Then the misinformation and accusations begin to fly. The developer is greedy and disingenuous. The city staff is in their pockets or incompetent. They won’t “compromise”.

Meanwhile, as the developer or company seeks to build support they make the rounds of the usual suspects and they are asked to do certain things such as contribute funds to a cause or build certain facilities. Some make sense, but others feel a little strange, words like extortion get thrown around.

Most play the game, to a point. But they start to wonder are they doing the right thing? When will the requests end? Where exactly is this going? Is this ethical?

Some decide to fight misinformation with PR. Big mistake; at least in the minds of opponents.

See we told you so, they say. The deep-pocketed developer is spending big bucks on mail, robocalls, ads, email blasts etc., seeking to overwhelm the poor resident/taxpayer.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be one of these resident taxpayers, or just a lowly renter or even a business owner who would like to support something you start to draw some heat.

“What’s in it for you,” you might be asked if you have the nerve to express support for something (it’s always OK to be against something, just don’t dare support something).

I was asked that last week, because I came out in favor of bringing 400 jobs, a corporate headquarters and family entertainment to downtown Delray.

What’s in it for me?

Let me answer that question: See above. I want to see 400 jobs; a corporate headquarters and family entertainment come to downtown Delray Beach. Shame on me.

But for me and for many others it goes beyond that. I’ve been working, alongside many others, on trying to create something in Delray since the 80s. I left office in 2007, after what I felt was a very productive 7 year run.

Am I bragging? Just a little.

But it was a team effort and I am proud of the team that I was on and the commission’s that came before us. I even like many of the people on the city staff…shocking, I know.

I live here. I care about this place. I think it’s smart for us to diversify beyond food and beverage and I want our children to be able to come home and work in Delray.

I’m a resident/taxpayer too. If I see something I like I want to be able to support it without being accused of being paid off. I think others feel the same way.

And by the way, we respect the legitimate concerns of opponents. I don’t relish traffic. But I understand tradeoffs. And I’m willing to live with inconveniences if there are compelling benefits. To me, there is no more compelling benefit than jobs. But I get the angst and I know it comes from a place of concern and love for Delray. Still, I am biased in favor or jobs and opportunity.

I am the co-founder of a non-profit called Dare 2 Be Great. Our mission is to provide scholarships and mentoring to some of the incredible kids who live in Delray Beach. We are investing in the next generation of leaders with the hope that some will come back here and make a positive impact on our community. The kids we help love this city and would like to come back. It is our responsibility to do what we can to provide them opportunities to do so.

We have a big job in front of us and a long, long way to go.

I don’t accuse opponents of ulterior motives so I don’t think it’s fair for them to do so to others just because there is an honest disagreement on a vision for Delray.

If I like something, it’s because I think it’s good for the city. If I don’t like something, it’s because I think it’s bad for the city. Pretty simple.

Most projects have good and bad elements…benefits and impacts. But if it’s a close call, I’ll always support progress and jobs, even if there is a tradeoff.

I think opponents are sincere in their love of Delray Beach. Others love the city just as much.

But I think our city slogan should be “How Can We Make It Work?” Some projects just don’t work. I voted down many projects during the biggest real estate boom imaginable. But the good ones, I wanted to see built—Mallory Square, CityWalk, Marina Bay, Ocean City Lofts, Atlantic Grove, a new library on West Atlantic, the Seagate Hotel and others. All of them required the team to say “how can we make it work?”

And we did.

And this town is great as a result.

We love this town too. It’s worth saying over and over.

So does our CRA and our Chamber and our DDA and our DBMC and the people who bring you festivals from Garlic to Delray Affair.

Are we perfect? Nope.

Did we get it all right? Not by a long shot.

Are we done? Not on your life.

Once upon a time, we worked together.

We became a national model for smart growth and great (not good, but great) urban planning and redevelopment.

We didn’t do all of this by talking past each other. We did it by saying “how do we make it work.” Change is going to come, whether we like it or not. We have to shape it and manage it.

It will work better if we figure out a way to talk respectfully on these issues. We need standards and high quality development, but we also need to understand that sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot.

Collaboration not confrontation; was a phrase we used in regards to our labor unions. It works.

The concerns are legitimate. But the people who back projects like the iPic are not blind, callous or in the pockets of developers.

Delray has been built on three pillars: scale, vibrancy and uniqueness. The LDR’s safeguard scale, we will never have high rises downtown. Uniqueness is in jeopardy right now as a result of very high land costs fueling what I think are unsustainable rents for independent retailers and restauranteurs.

We are vibrant, for 4-5 blocks anyway. But there is clearly more to do to help local businesses weather a long, hot and slow summer. And we need more jobs and industry beyond food and beverage. We did not aspire to be a seasonal resort town.

So what can we do to raise the level of discourse?

  • Continue the Mayor’s Lecture Series, but make them more interactive and take action on some of the advice we have been given.
  • Restore the Town Hall meeting, but to increase dialogue create smaller discussion groups.
  • Explore Community Engagement Platforms; town hall formats are great and so are public hearings, but if you have kids and a job it’s hard to be at a meeting from 6 p.m. to past midnight. As a result, important voices are left out. Technology is available to equip stakeholders with facts and allow their voices to be heard. CoUrbanize is just one I have seen. http://courbanize.com/ I’m sure there are others.
  • Open a design studio as mentioned in last week’s column.
  • Don’t allow any one group to speak for all, either pro or con. Effective leaders seek to engage all stakeholders, but the business community in this town has been labeled a special interest. They are not, they are stakeholders and their voices are important as well.
  • Have a fact based and ongoing conversation about traffic, parking and density.

We can make it work and still be friends and neighbors.