Take Your Rubber Ducks And Vamoose

Merchants fight for a toehold in gentrifying downtown

The life-sized cow figurine is coming home for the evening. Watching it roll indoors from the sidewalk on East Broward Boulevard reminds proprietor Jerry Miles of all the other outrageous objects he has employed over the decades — oversized Adirondack chairs, enormous mirrored sunglasses — to draw attention to his funky little novelty and clothing shop.

Inside the J. Miles store, the funhouse experience carries on. Pull back the curtain to a dressing room and you'll find a faux shower with ceramic tile and silver bathroom fixtures. A techno remix of "Forever Young" plays on the sound system. Rainbow-colored disco balls whirl from the ceiling. Club wear and hundreds of tiny men's swim trunks dangle from hangers. Rubber ducks are piled in a bucket. Replicas of Egyptian cat statuettes perch regally on shelves.

Miles, age 48, calls this menagerie his "five-and-dime of oddness." His landlord of eight years calls it unwelcome, and wants both the merchandise and Miles gone. If the landlord prevails, 721 E. Broward Blvd. will be the fourth locale that Miles has had to vacate since he set up shop in the city 28 years ago — and the retail face of downtown Fort Lauderdale likely will become a little more upscale and a little less quirky.

Jerry Miles feigns sparring inside his store.
C. Stiles
Jerry Miles feigns sparring inside his store.

Miles fell in love with Fort Lauderdale during a spring break trip in the late 1970s, while he was attending Michigan State University. Soon he had moved to Florida, transferred schools, and opened a T-shirt shop on a then-desolate stretch of Las Olas Boulevard. As Las Olas improved, rents rose; after 16 years, Miles couldn't afford a space on the posh shopping strip anymore. It took him years to find a suitable new location, on Broward just east of Federal Highway. This time around, he's opted to challenge his landlord in court. Raising his fists in the air, he says, "We're gonna hang boxing gloves around the cow's neck, because I'm fighting."

The J. Miles storefront is part of several commercial properties that Richard Lyons, a prominent urologist from Erie, Pennsylvania, bought as investments between 1968 and 1992. For years, real estate agent Barbara Schweppe managed the properties through a limited power of attorney that allowed her to negotiate leases, collect rent, and make repairs. Miles describes the 76-year-old Schweppe as "classy, fair, honest."

Schweppe played bridge and drank Bloody Marys every week with Richard Lyons' wife, Norma. She sent the doctor quarterly reports on his properties. Then, in 2003, Schweppe said in a deposition, Richard Lyons suffered a stroke. He died in 2007. His son Sanford commissioned an audit of the commercial properties, and daughter Valerie moved to Fort Lauderdale to help oversee family affairs. Schweppe said Valerie disapproved of the way Schweppe managed the properties, which included some prime real estate on swanky Las Olas. Valerie has argued in court documents that Schweppe charged below-market rents, thereby depriving the Lyons family of income.

Tensions mounted when a restaurateur purportedly offered to buy one of the Lyonses' tenants out of a long-term lease on Las Olas. Erich Emmenegger, who operated a high-end gift and decor store called Elements at 1034 E. Las Olas Blvd. for 18 years, says that an investor in Mark's Restaurant, which is next to Elements, approached him with a high-six-figure offer in the summer of 2005. Emmenegger says he informed Schweppe, who then brought the offer to the Lyonses. Schweppe reported back that Norma Lyons fumed, saying "No way in hell is Elements gonna make that much money off my property," Emmenegger said.

Emmenegger says that he suspects the investor then began to negotiate directly with Norma Lyons, because the investor stopped returning his phone calls.

A few months later, Emmenegger says, a wealthy customer offered to buy a 50 percent stake in Elements for $350,000. The customer, whom he declines to name, gave him a $35,000 deposit, he says, and planned to run the store full-time for the nine years remaining on the lease. With that deal in the works, Emmenegger and his partner, Ron Merritt, sold their Fort Lauderdale residence and bought their dream home in Mississippi. They envisioned a life of semi-retirement, with frequent trips to Fort Lauderdale and income still rolling in from Elements.

Then disaster struck. On December 12, 2005, Emmenegger says, he got an eviction notice at Elements. Emmenegger and Merritt hired a lawyer to fight, but with bills mounting and mortgage payments due in Mississippi, they decided to unload their merchandise at a steep discount and close shop in the spring of 2006. That meant a loss of future income.

"We moved into the [Mississippi] house and it was totally beautiful, but we couldn't enjoy it," Emmenegger says by phone. "We were worried about bills and getting jobs."

To pay the bills, Merritt took a job playing piano overseas, which requires him to be gone for three months at a time. "We never see each other anymore," Emmenegger says. "Our life is all turned around."

Schweppe was also a tenant of the Lyonses, renting a storefront for her real estate office due east of Elements on Las Olas. She, too, got an eviction notice. In the accompanying letter, Lyons family attorney William Tuttle demanded that Schweppe vacate 1038 E. Las Olas, which she had occupied since 1988. Schweppe fought the eviction through her attorney, Michael Hamaway. She declined to comment.

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