Friday, November 26, 2021

Trouble at the Delray CRA, Hiring Surge at The Boca Raton, and More

It was supposed to be a routine matter before the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. But in Delray Beach, almost nothing is routine.

On the consent agenda for the July 15 meeting was an update of a $75,000 CRA grant, which the CRA board approved last June, toward restoration of a historic home across the street from City Hall. The agency had paid out $56,250, with the rest to come upon completion. The applicant, Marion Associates, wanted an extension on the deadline.

Again, routine. Supply chain delays are delaying construction work all over South Florida.

Then City Commissioner Shirley Johnson spoke up. She noted that the contractor is Stuart & Shelby. The company’s owner/president is Chuck Halberg, who has a long record of business and civic involvement in Delray Beach.

Johnson blasted Halberg’s criticism of the CRA after Stuart & Shelby lost the contract for the Carver Square housing project despite the staff ranking the company’s bid highest. Because of the comments by this “gentleman,” Johnson said, perhaps the CRA should not grant Marion Associates the extension. Commissioner Juli Casale added her own criticism of Halberg.

Even in a city where political revenge is the municipal sport, Johnson’s comment was out of bounds. Halberg was not the applicant. Johnson wanted to make Marion Associates collateral damage over her gripe with Halberg.

“They did that,” Halberg said Wednesday, “because of me.”

To borrow a line from “The West Wing,” the comments were bad on so many levels. Denying the extension on an issue unrelated to the grant could expose the CRA to litigation that the agency almost certainly would lose. 

The board—composed of the five city commissioners and two commission appointees—eventually allowed a six-month extension. As Halberg said, however, “What happens if there’s a hurricane?” The vote took place before the height of the season.

Renovating any historic building, Halberg said, is tricky. This house was built in 1926. Any builder will tell you that plans can change once the work begins. Consider the unexpected $600,000 it cost to update Old Town Hall in Boca Raton because the aging infrastructure was in such bad shape.

The other problem is that Johnson impugned a prominent local business owner for no apparent reason except retribution. Halberg said he met with Joe Marion and “almost told him to fire me.” Halberg called the comments “pure vindictive behavior, and that is wrong.” He believes that the comments “were violations of law.”

Similar loose talk from the dais has happened in Boca Raton. Council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke nearly drew a lawsuit against the city when they voted against a senior living facility after stating, in essence, that they didn’t want too many old people downtown. The courts also have ruled that the city must hold a new hearing on a variance for an oceanfront project because Mayotte and O’Rourke prejudiced themselves by stating beforehand that they would vote against it.

For now, the Delray Beach CRA may be safe because the board allowed the extension. But the issue could return if delays push completion of Marion Associates’ project past six months.

What happened on July 15 is the sort of thing that draws ethics complaints. “I will do whatever it takes,” Halberg said, “to protect my business.”

Hiring spree at The Boca Raton

COVID-19

Job resignations nationwide are setting records. Potential employees never have been pickier, having reassessed work-life balance during the pandemic.

That is the challenge facing Maria Burns, chief human resources officer for The Boca Raton. She must fill roughly 500 positions by mid-December, when the resort begins the first phase of reopening after the $175 million transformation of the property by MSD Partners and Northview Hotel Group.

The Boca Raton held its first job fair a week ago. Others will take place on Nov. 2 and Nov. 9. Burns said the resort hired “130-plus” people after last week’s event. Openings range from management to housekeeping, a category that Burns—not surprisingly—said is “hard to fill.”

MSD and Northview make clear that they want The Boca Raton to be the best luxury resort in the world. So how, in these choosy times, does the company attract employees who will give guests that level of service each day?

“We have an advantage,” said Burns, who has worked at the resort since 2012. “This is an exciting time for us. There is an amazing buzz” about the property. Burns also cites benefits such as tuition reimbursement, child care and free parking.

“Individuals,” Burns said, “know when they want to work. They know what they want now.” Applicants once listed no preference for job type; they are now specific. Yet, Burns said, interviewers sometimes steer candidates to different jobs “with better career paths” after being assured that someone actually wants to work. Burns herself began in catering.

Typically, Burns said, there’s a “falloff rate” of 50 percent among new hires. Half never show even after accepting. Those recent hires first must attend orientation at the resort. So far, Burns said, there has been no falloff.

The Boca Raton’s beach club and bungalows have remained open during the renovation. On Dec. 17, the Cloister—the oldest part of the resort—and the yacht club will reopen. Many restaurants also will open between now and then. The tower is scheduled to reopen in early 2022.

Previously, the resort had roughly 1,900 “associates,” as Burns calls them. The goal for next year is to have between 1,500 and 1,600 and build from there. “This is an interesting environment,” Burns understated. That $175 million investment depends on the people The Boca Raton can hire at the most challenging time for employers in decades.

FAU seeks football upgrade

The Owls playing in the Boca Raton Bowl

The realignment of college football has reached Florida Atlantic University.

ESPN was first to report that FAU has applied to move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. It would be another promotion to a higher-level conference for FAU, which began with the Sun Belt Conference in 2005 after starting its program and advanced to Conference USA in 2013. Under former Coach Lane Kiffin, the Owls won conference championships in 2017 and 2019.

Texas and Oklahoma began this realignment when they announced a move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference. Four American Athletic Conference teams have applied to join the Big 12, which creates the opening for FAU and five other teams to move up from Conference USA.

At every level, these moves are about making more money and having a higher profile to help recruiting. FAU, which has declined to confirm any intention to move, could first join the American Atlantic Conference in 2023.

Delray police update

I wrote Tuesday about resistance among Delray Beach police officers to the city’s COVID-19 protocols—vaccination or weekly testing. I noted that more police officers have died nationwide from the virus than in the line of duty.

Then this week came a new report. COVID-19 has become the leading killer of police officers in Florida. I’ll have updates as contract talks continue with the police union.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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