- George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When President Donald Trump returns to Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday for a second season of golfing and governing, he’ll find a different mix of tenants in his ballroom and a large construction project where protesters and supporters used to gather to watch his motorcades.
The White House has not yet confirmed details of Trump’s first trip to his part-time home for the 2017-2018 season, but the Federal Aviation Administration has issued a “VIP Movement Notification” for pilots from Tuesday until Nov 26 — meaning Air Force One is expected at Palm Beach International Airport during that time.
The president, who last visited Mar-a-Lago in April, was expected by many to return for this Thanksgiving and Christmas and, if the first few months of his presidency are any guide, several weekends during the winter and spring of 2018.
The presidential visits will bring a return of sporadic traffic and parking headaches for some residents and businesses in West Palm Beach and Palm Beach and prolonged shutdowns and economic losses for the tiny Lantana airport, where the Secret Service orders flights grounded while Trump is in town.
There will also be a new round of local street theater from Trump’s opponents and supporters. The 2017-18 protest season kicked off Saturday with a “We’re Still Here — March Against Trump” that drew about 100 people to downtown West Palm Beach. Trump supporters are tentatively planning a “Welcome Home Mr. President” rally for Nov. 25.
The subject of Trump’s visits is broached carefully by Palm Beach officialdom.
Asked if Trump’s visits are a good thing for the town, Mayor Gail Coniglio answered: “I think that is all according to who you speak to and certainly we are very honored to have the president of the United States in our illustrious community.”
Said Palm Beach Civic Association spokesman Mike Brown: “We really don’t talk much about his visits. They are what they are.”
Palm Beach businesses initially complained of a downturn after Trump’s first few visits brought traffic tie-ups. The closure of State Road A1A in front of Mar-a-Lago when Trump is there forces residents to the south to detour through West Palm Beach if they want to visit the town’s main shopping and dining area on and around Worth Avenue.
“The first few visits were very traumatic for everyone because they didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Marley Herring, who owns a clothing boutique and is president of the Worth Avenue Association. But merchants and townsfolk adapted, she said. “Once we got past those first few visits, by the end of the season, it seemed to be very smooth running.”
Trump trekked to Mar-a-Lago seven times between February and April, with frequent side trips to his Trump International Golf Club off Summit Boulevard in unincorporated West Palm Beach. When he was in town, organized groups, curious individuals and members of the national and international media often gathered on Bingham Island, the tiny piece of land in the Intracoastal Waterway that offers a prime view of Mar-a-Lago’s western side.
The island is largely a construction staging area now as the Florida Department of Transportation begins a long-scheduled $93 million project to replace the Southern Boulevard drawbridge between the island and West Palm Beach and a smaller bridge that links the island to the rest of Palm Beach.
“We can’t get right up to Mar-a-Lago and Bingham Island as we used to, due to the construction,” lamented Alex Newell Taylor, the area captain for Women’s March Florida. She helped organize Saturday’s anti-Trump demonstration, which began in West Palm Beach outside the Trump Plaza — a building Trump hasn’t owned since the 1980s — and proceeded to CityPlace and Clematis Street.
Juan Fiol, who is organizing the Nov. 25 pro-Trump rally, has tentatively scheduled it for Dreher Park. Fiol, a Realtor from Miami, organized pro-Trump events earlier this year on Bingham Island, including one in March with a live band and DJ and a digital sign showing pictures of the president.
Trump saw the gathering while returning from a round of golf and briefly got out of his limousine and waved to about 200 supporters.
“I was shocked,” Fiol said. “We weren’t even expecting that. We just wanted him to know that we were there…It just shows what kind of a hands-on president he is.”
Trump’s opponents also want the president to know they are there.
“It’s hard to know what can be seen through the window of limousine cruising by,” said Taylor. “It’s hard to gauge what can be seen but you have do what you can.”
Another popular spot for crowds to cheer, jeer or simply catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade has been along Southern Boulevard between Interstate 95 and Lake Avenue in West Palm Beach.
That created a “messy situation” for some of the neighborhoods near Southern when motorcade watchers parked their cars there, said West Palm Beach City Commissioner Shanon Materio.
“We’re all frustrated because we can’t really find a good solution,” said Materio. “These are neighborhoods that weren’t created to have parking for these great numbers of people that are coming in.”
While motorcades typically zip through in a matter of minutes, presidential visits cause longer-term hardships for the roughly 20 businesses at the Lantana airport.
Because it is within a 10-nautical-mile radius of Mar-a-Lago, the Secret Service bars planes from using the airport when the president is visiting. The restrictions began after Trump was sworn in, so the airport was open when Trump spent a few weeks at Mar-a-Lago as president-elect in November and December of 2016.
Now that Trump is president, the airport will be shut down for the duration of any extended holiday stays he makes at Mar-a-Lago.
“Those are our peak periods,” said Jonathan Miller, president of Stellar Aviation, the airport’s fixed base operator. “We could be looking at 25 to 30 days of closures. There aren’t too many businesses that can survive being closed half that long.”
Miller estimated his business loses about $30,000 during a typical weekend shutdown, but could lose $350,000 over Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.
Trump’s visits have also altered business at his own Mar-a-Lago Club. Twenty or more charities have cancelled fundraising events at Mar-a-Lago, many of them fleeing after Trump’s equivocal remarks about the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August.
Despite the exodus, other charity events and private parties have filled the club’s schedule, Mar-a-Lago General Manager Bernd Lembcke said in October.
“All I can tell you is we are really doing fine,” Lembcke said. “It will be a good season.”