Tailpipe

Baja Bye-bye

Slippery Business

During its short year-and-a-half life, the Baja Beach Club in Fort Lauderdale's Riverplace managed to rake in more than $2 million -- a considerable amount of dough for a bar open only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Now the spacious second-floor bar sits shuttered, with 37 people out of jobs and its partners duking it out in court. Bankruptcy, dude (and dudette).

What happened? Depends upon who you ask, of course. Some folks say the most recent version of the Baja never captured the extroverted cachet of the old place, on Federal Highway at Oakland Park Boulevard. That was "spring break central," a place with sharks dangling from the ceiling and cuties sprawled across the bar as guys slurped shots out of their navels. You know, sophisticated entertainment. "It was pretty wild and crazy," one patron reported in an online chatroom. "Bartenders whipping out their private parts, unbelievable stuff going on on the dance floor."

The new place, with a huge dance floor, a Latin lovers' side room, and a patio bar, aimed a little higher. Well, they charged more to get in (for guys, a $10 cover and $9 for a cocktail).

The club's majority owners, Corbett Lenz and Seth Daley, who are brothers-in-law and 70 percent owners, agreed last fall to sell the business to minority partner John Ganci. But in the bar business, agreement is a slippery term. The proposed sale quickly devolved into acrimony, a lawsuit, and a countersuit. Before Baja's duded-up patrons knew what was happening, Ganci was claiming that the club had been mismanaged; he began seeking to dissolve the business and petitioning for a court-appointed financial overseer.

Then it was up to Broward Circuit Court Judge Robert Rosenberg to sort out the club's finances. Rosenberg was not impressed with what he saw. In an April 12 order granting control of the joint's finances to an attorney, the judge complained that he was never provided with "reliable financial books... or candid testimony." He was, however, given "recently manufactured, and indeed manicured, business statements."

Noting that the company had never made a profit, Rosenberg asserted that there "remains a question whether money is being diverted from... cash collected at the door." He concluded that the club was "mismanaged" and "continues to be operated in a manner that... may be tantamount to fraud." One of those activist liberal judges, obviously.

Ganci's attorney declined to comment, but Daley bitterly summed up his former partner: "He decided to burn the place to the ground -- legally, illegally, whatever he wanted to do." Anybody who'd do something like that to a place where American young people are sucking tequila out of their girlfriends' navels would probably paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa. A freakin' nihilist.

Nix the Picnic

Tailpipe packed the deviled eggs in the picnic basket, filled the thermos with fortified lemonade, dug out the checkered tablecloth, and headed for Riverland Woods Park the other day. Nothing like spreading out your transportable victuals in a bucolic little sanctuary -- like, say, along the banks of the New River -- on a warm spring day, eh?

But the 'Pipe smacked hard, metal on metal, against a chainlink fence. No park, no playground for the disappointed pipettes, no comfortable riverside spot. Riverland Woods Park -- despite a Sun-Sentinel story two years ago saying the place was open and ready for business -- is nothing but a neglected construction site. Scuffed dirt and a pile of gravel. In fact, say residents of southwest Fort Lauderdale who have been awaiting the opening of the park since 2002, it's much as it has been for the past ten years.

Negotiations for the site at U.S. 441 and Interstate 595 actually began in 1995. Joan Sheridan, a leading activist in the Lauderdale Isles neighborhood, led a waterway cleanup on the New River that year. Soon, Sheridan was lobbying county officials to build a park with a boat ramp on the 15-acre parcel at the end of Riverland Road. Eventually, Sheridan, with help from state and local politicians, worked out a land swap with the owner for five acres.

Residents couldn't prevent a developer from sucking up the adjacent five acres for a storage facility.

But with bank loans and public grants in place, it seemed as if it was going to happen. There would be a park, a boat ramp, and a pedestrian/bike bridge across the river. But then, state parks funders picked BRC Construction, a firm from Hialeah with no prior park experience, to oversee the job. By the end of 2004, with a little more than half of the work completed, BRC went bankrupt. SunCoast, the new contractor, is scheduled to finish the abandoned park by July. So it says. The neighbors keep a crust of hard-earned skepticism in place.

"We've been pretty frustrated," says neighbor Michael Natale, who sits on Fort Lauderdale's parks and rec advisory board. "This should have been a done deal years ago."

Natale, Sheridan, and Lauderdale Isles activist Randy Dunlap still hope to acquire the site's remaining five acres as a greenspace entry to southwest Fort Lauderdale. But a developer is eyeing that spot too, for condos. "I can see it coming like a freight train," Dunlap worries.

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