The city has declared the troubled 45th Street Flea Market a chronic nuisance and given it a month to clean up its code violations, Mayor Jeri Muoio said Monday during a testy meeting with owners of the market and the property as well as some of the merchants who work there.
The market — located across from the old Palm Beach Jai-Alai Fronton, with 60 percent in West Palm Beach and 40 percent in Mangonia Park — has been criticized as a magnet for crime, prostitution and drug sales. It’s been the scene of at least five shootings, more than one fatal, in the past two decades.
Monday, in the conference room of police headquarters, the mayor, waving a page and a half listing 260 violations, said the city declared the place a chronic nuisance on Jan. 22. Code enforcement officials recited a litany of violations; potholes, trash and debris, lack of paint.
“I want you to be effective,” Muoio said. “I want you to have a thriving business. But I need you to comply with the codes. If you don’t, you will be shut down.”
Property owner Sidney Spiegel asked the mayor, “What do you want from me?”
Muoio replied, “You can’t allow that to happen.”
Spiegel: “If we don’t, you’re going to go in and do what?”
Muoio: “Aren’t you embarrassed that all of that takes place on your property?”
That sparked Spiegel’s son, Robert, to snap, “It’s your neighborhood. West Palm Beach. Clean it up.”
Sidney Spiegel said after the meeting he was prepared to comply with the city’s demands “provided they’re reasonable.”
Muoio told the meeting the city has recorded more than 20 police calls in six months; “that means there’s something systematically wrong in in the way your operation’s going. I could have 30 police officers there.”
Police routinely patrol the area and the parking lot. Young Lai Yoo, president and director of the flea market operation, said he also pays $95,000 a year for off-duty city officers to work security.
Police Chief Vincent Demasi said he considers the place too dangerous to put just one off-duty officer there at a time, and the market should pay for at least three, or else hire its own security guards.
Young said that’s financially out of the question.
Spiegel said it’s not his fault his operation is surrounded by an area plagued by crime. And merchant Adam Dormi said it’s not overflowing garbage cans that’s causing incidents. But Muoio said, “people see it’s not an attractive place, they’re going to treat it poorly.”
Spiegel heatedly told chronic nuisance officer Laura Borso, “I’ve been in that area where no one would own anything in that area. I stood up for these people. They are not going to be pushed around; not going to be vacated.”
Merchant Jamal Hammed added: “We’ve been in business a long time. We pay our taxes. We have families. We are going and risking our lives every day.
“It’s just the picture that’s given of that market (that it) is a war zone. It’s just not true. It is not true.”
Demasi said, “The management of the facility tolerates illegal activity.” He added, “I feel very sorry for the vendors. It’s not your fault.”
But Muoio said the merchants aren’t all innocents either, telling them, “you need to make sure you have your licenses. Make sure no illegal activity occurs in your booth.”
The city’s said it isn’t even sure how many merchants operate. Young said it’s 50, but the city said it could be as many as 100. The city said it believes many have neither licenses nor permits.
“I don’t know why suddenly I was put on the defensive,” Young told the mayor. “I don’t know what picture you have. Not everybody that comes around that market are not-good people.; 95 percent are normal people. Normal citizens. Wonderful people. We have security issue; we are trying to solve it.”
He asked Demasi. “What is the duty to protect the people? America is for the people. Of the people. By the people. That is America Constitution.”
Demasi added, “I agree with you. And by ‘people,’ we mean the community. Not an individual. There’s a big difference.”