For the city of West Palm Beach, it was to be a showpiece in its redevelopment efforts — a demonstration that it values the history of the black northwest neighborhood near downtown.
Instead, the choice of an operator for the revamped Sunset Lounge deteriorated into accusations, lawsuits and racial politics.
All the drama certainly gives new meaning to the term bidding war.
Contact 5 secured a letter Thursday against the now-preferred bidder negotiating to run a venue that once hosted Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
Competing group Vita Lounge LLC was ousted for reported illegal lobbying.
In a letter to the city, an attorney for Vita now claims their replacement – Mad Room Entertainment – is also guilty of illegal lobbying.
Vita Lounge lost the chance to run a project that cost taxpayers around $20 million when the city said it violated its lobbying law.
City purchasing manager Paul Bassar said Vita posted messages on Facebook urging residents to show their support to help with its final negotiation, the city said.
The city council sitting as the community redevelopment agency voted a month ago to choose Vita Lounge, a local black-owned group, to operate the supper club with some 150 seats on the first floor.
Led by Darrin Cummings, the group also run the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth, the former blues venue turned hip-hop club.
Mayor Keith James, however, wanted Miami-based Mad Room Hospitality to operate the Sunset Lounge. The June 27 meeting was tinged with racial overtones.
When Bassar started Vita Lounge, the town went Mad Room.
Vita filed a lawsuit Monday and seeks an injunction to stop the city from moving forward with Mad Room.
Now, Vita Lounge’s attorney claims in a letter that Mad Room violated the same lobbying order by communicating with James via email.
Mad Room Hospitality is jointly owned by Bill Fuller and brothers Zach and Ben Bush. They purchased, restored and operated the Ball & Chain Bar and Lounge and Taquerias El Mexicano in Miami and the Mai-Kai Restaurant & Polynesian Show in Oakland Park.
Contact 5 reached out to Mad Room operator Zach Bush for comment, but did not receive a call back. The city also did not return our email for comment.
In Thursday’s letter from Vita Lounge attorney F. Malcolm Cunningham, the company included a June 27-28 email exchange between James and Bush with the subject line “Thank you.”
Bush wrote to the mayor thanking him for his support despite not being selected.
“That being said, we understand how important this project is to the entire city and specifically to the Northwest District,” Bush wrote.
The mayor responded the next day, saying in the email, “I continue to believe your company was the best fit for the project.”
On June 27, in a race-tinged meeting, commissioner Christina Lambert and Cathleen Ward joined Shalonda Warren and Christy Fox in voting for Vita. Peduzzi and James supported Mad Room.
When Bassar kicked out Vita, Warren and Fox wanted to begin the process of finding an operator. But James, Lambert and Ward choose to go with Mad Room.