If nothing else, the presence of County Administrator Heidi Petito and Assistant County Attorney Sean Moylan on the grounds of the disused Country Hearth Inn on Old Dixie Highway this afternoon was a sign that the county is very much intent on ensuring that the new owners of the long-troubling property will live up to their obligations–both to clean it up, make it safe, and restore it as a motel, as they pledged to do in their May agreement with the county.
“We don’t want the public to think we’re easing up on them by any means,” Petito said today, standing in the shade of one of the older oaks on the property as an architect and representatives of the owners huddled over blueprints a few steps away, under what used to be the motel’s covered drive-up. “We understand there’s delays in materials, there’s delays in subcontractors, but as long as we see forward progress, we’re OK.”
The county took extraordinary measures with the previous owners–among them a lawsuit–to compel them to comply with code enforcement rules, pay their fines and ensure the grounds were safe. The county was ready to raze the property. Rather than complying, the owners sold to David Shebeiro and Manny Gomez, whose company, 2251 South Old Dixie, named for the address of the motel, is the official title holder. They are represented by a North Miami law firm. The new owners paid the outstanding fines and pledged in the three-page agreement to abide by certain deadlines. The lawsuit has not been dropped. It remains a bargaining chip.
But both county and residents have been concerned about timelines. The new owners have carried out some of the required work at the property. But other deadlines have passed, worrying county officials.
By August 20, the new owners were supposed to have passed a so-called “rough inspection” of electrical, mechanical, plumbing and framing or pay a cash deposit to the county of $250,000 as security for the abatement of the public health and code enforcement violations on the property. The county would use the cash bond to do the necessary work itself.
On Sept. 8, Hadeed wrote the owners a demand letter about the passed deadline. “Not only are these activities outstanding but you have not filed for a permit that would allow these activities to commence,” Hadeed wrote. “Our preference is not to take formal action under the agreement for a breach of the agreement. Accordingly, please send us a schedule for your completion of the ‘all rough’ inspections as soon as possible, including dates for permit application submittals. ”
Hadeed briefed the County Commission on that letter at Monday’s meeting. By then Jim Albano, the contractor and co-owner of the locally-based Bespoke Group, a design firm the new owners hired to run the project, had responded with what Hadeed described as “50% drawings of the new facility,” in a document that appears to name the new facility as the Henry Hotel. (See the drawings here.) The plans propose enlarging the hotel and adding meeting space.
“However they are still behind the timelines, and so we we’ve done two specific things,” Hadeed said. “One, we’ve asked them to tender that $250,000 cash deposit, but we’ve also told them that we are suspending the extension of wastewater facilities, and water facilities to the motel until they can get back on track.” The county was to use dollars secured through the federal American Rescue Act to build that extension. “So we’re putting a pause on that to make sure that they understand we need to see progress on this project.”
A video produced by the county last year, before the property sold, showed the grounds at their most derelict–the swimming pool in the center of the interior courtyard partly filled with water as fetid as it was brown, the rooms filled with a mixture of disused furniture and garbage, beds–some of them still with their covers on–broken art work, shattered glass everywhere, jagged glas sin the frames of each rooms windows, lamps, tables, TVs, debris around the grounds, and the usual scrolls of graffiti that adorn the walls of abandoned properties like kudzu made of spray paint.
All of that but the graffiti is gone. A walk around the grounds today showed evidence of significant clean-up. Most dramatically, the pool and its white, useless fence are gone, entirely filled in in such a way that the interior courtyard is now one vast plain of leveled dirt and tufts of grass here and there. The rooms have been entirely emptied, all debris and furniture removed, all jagged edges scraped, all glass on the ground removed. The paved circuit around the motel, once strewn with debris, has been cleaned up. Only the graffiti remains.
The August deadline may have been somewhat ambitious, considering the unpredictability of the covid landscape, the Delta variant’s surge in Florida, and supply-chain issues that have plagued many a contractor. The new owners also discovered that the motel’s roof had some issues that had to be addressed. A roofer was among the people at the property today. Those issues interfered with moving forward on such things as electrical work, Kong said. He said a public “reveal” of the owners’ plans is ahead.
Meanwhile, Petito said, the owners have asked for an extension on their permitting deadline. “We want to understand what is the extension for,” she said. “We’re here to listen. We want to see what they have, what they’ve uncovered.” But overall, the county administrator projected confidence in the work ahead. “It is good stuff and it is moving forward. We just want to continue working with them to move the project forward,” Petito said.