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By Deirdra Funcheon
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Seated in his office on the 46th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Miami, developer R. Donahue Peebles looks quite relaxed. The lofty headquarters for Peebles Atlantic Development Corporation overlooks Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach, the site of Peebles's crown jewel, the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort, a 422-room hotel, expected to open next month. Inside his corner suite, which has exterior walls of unobstructed windows, a telescope stands atop a tripod, its lenses pointed downward toward the Royal Palm. The sightline is quick and straight -- a stark contrast to the tangled deals with which Peebles has been involved in the past five years.
He wears a low-key blue tie and dress shirt, which match nicely with the azure sky surrounding him. His baby-brown eyes and round face make him look younger than his 41 years. An edge of fervency at times quickens his smooth baritone voice. His office is simply decorated, adorned with framed news stories about the Royal Palm hotel and his other ongoing Miami Beach project, the Bath Club.
His calm seems to belie the utter collapse a few days before of another proposed project, a headquarters hotel for the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale. On July 26 Wyndham Hotels pulled its $25 million out of the $81 million project.
"Where are we with Broward?" Peebles asks himself after a swig of Perrier. "I cannot imagine a circumstance -- and I would never say never-never, but no circumstance comes to mind -- that would have us building this hotel. Frankly I really don't see them building it themselves and having an international operator."
All Peebles really wants now from the Broward County Board of Commissioners, he claims, is a reimbursement of his costs, which he asserts the county is under obligation to provide him in the event the project is terminated. "We're doing an inventory now, and our best estimate is somewhere between $2.5 million and $4 million," Peebles declares. "Our lawyers are examining our options. I try to avoid litigation at all costs, but on the same hand, I'm willing to fight for what I believe in. We will pursue legal action where we feel our business interests have not been protected. In the meantime, we've decided to step away from the deal."
A consummate dealmaker who honed his skills in the nation's capital, Peebles knows the value of a veiled threat. But that's not the only bargaining tool in his repertoire. As one of few black hotel developers in the United States, Peebles has used that status in competing for development opportunities outside Miami Beach. He is a powerful symbol of long-overdue equity for minority contracts in Broward County, and his supporters from the NAACP and the Urban League in the past convinced him -- and county commissioners -- to push ahead. Peebles's history in development has not been one of quiet acceptance of fate; rather, he will adroitly juggle partners in and out, charm the decision-makers, and when all else fails, litigate.
For all his business prowess, however, Peebles has yet to get a hotel built outside of D.C. or Miami Beach. His attempts at public-private hotel development in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, Florida; New Orleans; and San Francisco have all come up empty. Some critics say Peebles overextended his reach by becoming involved in too many deals at once. They claim that Peebles doesn't bring enough to the bargaining table, that his financial backers are too tentative about committing the millions of dollars needed for major hotels.
Today, having briefly rattled his saber at Broward County, Peebles shifts to a more philosophical posture. "Quite candidly, I don't have to do this economically," he reveals. "I've done quite well. So I'm doing this because it challenges me. One of the things I've gotten out of the hotel industry is breaking barriers. Think about it: In the United States we had no hotels, prior to my involvement, built or owned by an African-American. That was one of the things that motivated me. My grandfather was a doorman for 40 years at the Sheridan Hotel in Washington, D.C. -- and he had several years of college. That was the best job he could get as an African-American. You can start at the bottom in the hotel industry. You can end up managing a hotel."
Peebles's mother, Yvonne Poole, fostered in her son lasting preferences for two things: the Democratic Party and real estate. Raised in Detroit and then Washington, D.C., the young Peebles lived in a home where selecting a political party was tantamount to choosing a religion.
"My real induction into politics started at about 14 when I was a legislative page," Peebles remembers. "I'd have school classes from six to ten-thirty in the morning, and then work as a page until seven at night."
Embracing real estate took a bit longer. Inspired by an uncle who was a doctor, Peebles attended Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, intending eventually to go to medical school. But after working part-time in his uncle's medical office, he changed his mind. He went back to D.C. and began working as an appraiser at his mother's real-estate business. In 1983 he opened his own appraisal business.