You Can Fight City Hall

Earlier this year, not long before a Broward County judge paved the way for Jim Stephanis' enrichment, Linda Kristeff, his sweetheart of 11 years, packed her bags and called it quits on their relationship. "I can't stand being poor anymore," Stephanis recalls her saying before she cleared out of their $900-a-month condo in Coconut Creek.

"Losing Linda is probably the worst thing to come out of this Yardarm mess," Stephanis later remarked. "I don't blame her though. She's approaching 40. She's probably thinking, 'Is this guy ever going to have any money, is he going to be a bartender for the rest of his life?'"

If all goes well, the answer to that question may soon become clear. After a 25-year legal battle, Jim Stephanis seems to be on the verge of becoming a very wealthy man. Again.

On February 23, in a scathing judgment against the City of Pompano Beach, Judge Herbert Moriarty condemned the city for violating Stephanis' civil rights through years of deliberate sabotage against a hotel project on the site of his once-famed restaurant, the Yardarm. If Stephanis has his way, in the coming months a jury will be impaneled to assess damages, which means that one of Broward County's longest-running legal battles may finally be coming to an end. In a circular twist, the payoff, expected to reach into the tens of millions of dollars -- some estimates put the figure as high as $90 million -- may wind up bankrupting the city that drove Stephanis to ruin.

Still, Stephanis, now 65 years old and working as a bartender at an Italian restaurant in Boca Raton, isn't trading in his Chevy Cavalier quite yet. The city filed an appeal on March 18, and if his bad luck keeps up, there's no telling what might happen. Linda's departure is only the latest misfortune in a long list going back to 1972, when Stephanis mounted an ill-fated campaign for the U.S. Congress. Since then he's lost: two restaurants, a hotel project, a beef business, several million dollars, a boat, a mansion (smut king Al Goldstein now lives in his house), a wife, a live-in girlfriend, and many, many dreams.

Through it all, though, Stephanis has shown remarkable resolve. With Clinton-like resilience he takes his lumps and keeps on smiling. At Arturo's, the Boca restaurant where he tends bar, Stephanis is known as the best entertainment in the house. On a recent Thursday night, sporting a tux and a great big grin, he regaled patrons with a rapid-fire stream of one-liners, promoting a second round of martinis with a quick quip. "Martinis are like women's breasts," he said. "One's not enough and three's too many." His good cheer, according to friends, has never wavered, even through the worst periods of his legal and financial ordeal. "You're nothing if you lose your sense of humor," he says. "It's easy for me to adjust to tough times because I was raised on tough times. You won't see me jumping from a tall building because I lost my money."

It's that attitude that has kept Stephanis doggedly pursuing the Pompano Beach politicians who stood in the way of his dream of building a world-class hotel on the ocean. "At first it wasn't about money," he says. "But after 25 years of this I figure, punish the bastards." Jim's troubles began in 1972 when he first drew up plans for the Yardarm Inn, an 18-story hotel with 161 rooms and 33 boat slips. City zoning codes for the site favored large commercial development, and Stephanis figured the plan would be quickly approved. He couldn't have been more wrong.

A coalition of private and political interests, including the local Republican Club (Stephanis was a Democrat) and an organization of condo owners concerned the hotel would obstruct their ocean view, aligned against the project. The chain reaction of events that followed (detailed in Judge Moriarty's 40-page judgment) spotlights the most egregious traits of municipal politics -- bribery, backroom deals, secret meetings, and political bullying. The city first offered Stephanis a building permit and then revoked it, commissioners held secret meetings in their homes in which they pledged to "stop the Yardarm," and, Stephanis says, he was approached by then-mayor William Alsdorf about making a $10,000 "contribution" to the mayor in return for a favorable vote on the hotel project. (Stephanis refused.) Such political tactics helped brand Pompano Beach as one of the worst places to do business in Broward County.

In the decade since Stephanis' company declared bankruptcy -- its finances were drained by a succession of lawsuits -- the hotel's prime waterfront real estate has sat fallow, turned into an undeveloped park that accommodates weekend fishermen and not much else. After the property was seized, the city bought it in 1989 for a little more than half of its assessed value but has had few viable development offers since. One plan partnering Wendy's founder Dave Thomas and Boca Raton restaurateur Pete Boinis proposed building a restaurant and marina complex on the site. That proposal was quickly quashed by the city on the grounds that the bid was too low, and for now the property remains in development limbo.

For his part Stephanis says he has no intention of trying to resurrect the Yardarm or any other project in Pompano Beach, which he refers to as a "town of pirates." If or when the payoff finally comes, he says he'll almost certainly go back into business again, though what type of business remains to be seen. He's also thought about sailing around the world or moving to a horse farm in northern Florida but has shelved those ideas now that he no longer has a partner with whom to share them. "As long as I'm healthy, I expect to be involved in some kind of business until I'm 85," he says.

Stephanis didn't always have to imagine what it might be like to have millions. Years ago, instead of tending bar, he owned one. Once upon a time, it seemed as if he could do no wrong. In his early twenties, Stephanis, the son of a Depression-era barber, set out for Chicago to pursue a career in the restaurant business. Starting at the Drake restaurant chain and then moving to the Gaslight Club, a precursor to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Clubs, he amassed considerable clout and capital. In 1959, by the time he was 26 years old, he had scraped together enough cash to launch the Yardarm, his own restaurant at the mouth of the Hillsboro Inlet in Pompano Beach. The bustling seafood restaurant quickly became a local culinary landmark and made Jim and his partner, his older brother Tom, very rich young men. But Jim's good fortune would not last.

The financial and legal turmoil of the last quarter-century has done little to demoralize the man, a self-proclaimed philanthropist who used his money when he was wealthy to build a Boy's Club in an impoverished neighborhood in Pompano Beach. Since "busting out," as he calls it, he has relied on the kindness of friends like restaurateur Gilles Dubuc to keep him from the brink. "Even when he was at his lowest, he would always say something to make you laugh," says Dubuc, who at one time lent his friend a great deal of money. "He's got to be a saint; most people would have quit by now." Stephanis returns the compliment. "I have great friends. When I was really broke, I was eating out every night and never picking up a single bill," he recalls. "I've never lost my sense of humor because my health was always good; with good health I can always go out and find a job."

In fact, if ever there were a poster boy for the health benefits of austerity, Jim Stephanis would be it. When he was fat with cash, he was literally fat. "With money you lose your drive, your desire to do things," he says. "Suddenly you get lazy." Now lean and mean and a full-time vegetarian, Stephanis beams like a rich man. He looks kind of like a down-and-out Bob Hope, with a big square jaw and a copious amount of good cheer. "I've learned that laughter drives your opponents crazy," he says. So does putting up a good fight. A few years ago, he turned down a $7 million settlement offer, calling it "minor league." "The property I lost was worth more than that back then," he says. "A lesser man would have taken the money and given up. I'm fighting for justice. This could have been over a long time ago, but not one of those brave elected officials has ever said, 'Look pal, we made a mistake, we're sorry.'"

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Jay Cheshes