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Two companies sue over free use of ‘tent site’

Two longtime West Palm Beach art show producers are suing the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency for giving rival Art Miami free use of the city-owned “tent site” without giving others a shot.

Palm Beach Jewelry and Antique Show Inc., which draws more than 50,000 people annually to shows at the Palm Beach Convention Center, sued the CRA Monday for giving away use of the site at the corner of South Dixie Highway and Okeechobee Boulevard without providing sufficient public notice or entertaining competing proposals.

Not only is that unfair but it deprives the city of money it would gain by allowing competitive bidding, said Rob Samuels, who co-owns the long-running show.

Miami-based IFAE LLC, which also rents convention center space for annual shows, filed a similar suit Thursday, saying the agency’s action causes it “substantial financial damage.” IFAE’s David Lester said the CRA action “clearly violates the law,” noting that it was IFAE’s principals who originally prepared the “tent site” for use as an art show venue and spent millions of dollars on it between 1998 and 2003.

“It gives the appearance of furtiveness, which is not good in today’s governmental world,” Lester said.

When his Art Palm Beach company and the Palm Beach Jewelry and Antique Show asked to lease the “tent site” for extra parking for their shows last year, he added, the agency wouldn’t allow it, even though the companies were willing to pay a premium. Now the city’s giving the site to a competitor without having let anyone else know it was available, he said.

Both IFAE and the Palm Beach Jewelry and Antique Show rent convention center space just days from when the CRA is allowing Art Miami to hold its show, Jan. 12-15. IFAE’s show is scheduled for Jan. 18-22. Palm Beach Jewelry holds shows in December and February.

Show producers compete for exhibitors, who in turn compete for dollars by selling jewelry, art and antiques to residents of wealthy Palm Beach and elsewhere. Because the market is only so deep, it’s important to spread the shows out, said Samuels.

But Neil Schiller, attorney for Art Miami, said there’s room for more. “They’ve done everything in their power to keep us out of Palm Beach County and out of West Palm Beach. Enough is enough,” he said.

The city commissioners, sitting as the agency board, voted June 6 to let Art Miami, LLC use the site in January, with the rights to renew for two subsequent years. Mayor Jeri Muoio, responding to Samuels at a special meeting of the CRA Monday, said that because that was not a regularly scheduled meeting, the commissioners could not reconsider the matter until July.

CRA Executive Director Jon Ward said he could not comment on pending lawsuits.

Thirty days’ advance notice should have been given to the public that the site was available and the agency should have issued a request for proposals, Samuels, a jeweler and board member of the Downtown Development Authority, said Tuesday.

“The CRA handing someone the site for no charge is very hurtful,” he said. “It’s not a level playing field. Rent doesn’t happen at zero dollars often. I don’t pay zero dollars. No one is going to bid zero dollars and expect to get the site.”

Schiller argued that neither 30-days’ notice nor a formal request for proposals was required under the law because Art Miami signed a licensing agreement with the city, not a lease. Putting the decision on the June 6 CRA agenda was enough notice, he said.

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