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Ballooning costs, inability to find operator hamper West Palm Beach's efforts to revive historic Sunset Lounge

Construction for the publicly-funded renovation now tops $16.4 million
Posted at 5:16 PM, Sep 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-16 17:16:39-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The city of West Palm Beach and its community redevelopment agency are creating a new African American cultural tourism destination.  

The publicly-funded redevelopment of the Sunset Lounge in the city's historic Northwest neighborhood hopes to "pay homage to the rich jazz and Black history of the area."

"This was the entertainment hub," Robbie Littles said. "It was the only place the good top-shelf Black entertainers could perform." 

Littles recalls musical memories he made at the Sunset Lounge as a young man. 

"We sat out on a hood of cars at night when the big entertainers were here and listened to it," he said. "At that point in time, for Black folks, this was the only place for us to go."

Robbie Littles recalls musical memories at the Sunset Lounge
Robbie Littles recalls the musical memories he had at the Sunset Lounge during its heyday.

Entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong graced the Sunset Lounge dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, making it a "premier African American entertainment" venue at a time of racial segregation.  

Now, the city of West Palm Beach through its Community Redevelopment Agency is hoping to revive the Sunset Lounge's legacy.  

The CRA purchased the venue and surrounding properties in 2016 for $2.4 million.  

The CRA's former director, Jon Ward, told commissioners back in 2019 that construction would cost around $10.5 million.  

Construction for the publicly-funded renovation now tops $16.4 million.  

The CRA also budgeted another $2 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment for the venue and $500,000 to find an operator.

Historic Sunset Lounge photo
The Sunset Lounge was a hot spot for Black entertainers in the 1940s and 1950s.

 Mayor Keith James and CRA Director Christopher Roog declined multiple requests for an interview to answer WPTV's questions about the project, including the cost.

Instead, a spokesperson told Contact 5 that "the renovation of historic structures can face unexpected challenges." They also cited architectural and mechanical work for the multi-million-dollar increase.

Local business owner Rodney Mayo told Contact 5 that he recently toured the Sunset Lounge.

"I was concerned where all the money went but once you walk in, you're like, 'This is where it all went,'" Mayo said. "They really didn't skimp on anything. It's really all first-class finishing." 

City quote for "unexpected challenges" for West Palm Beach
The city said the Sunset Lounge project "can face unexpected challenges."

The city wouldn't allow our cameras inside the renovated venue to see how the dollars were spent, despite multiple requests.  

When pressed why and a spokesperson told Contact 5 that the city is planning an "open house for the community" once they receive a certificate of completion from the building department.  

Finding someone to operate the Sunset Lounge has been contentious, controversial and now it's in court.  

As previously reported by WPTV and Contact 5, the CRA canceled its efforts — at the moment — to hire an operator to manage the historic venue and disqualified both of its only bidders over alleged lobbying violations, which both groups deny.  

Mayo said he considered applying to operate the Sunset Lounge but doesn't think it's viable.  

Rodney Mayo, West Palm Beach business owner discusses Sunset Lounge project
Rodney Mayo was able to get an inside look at the Sunset Lounge and was impressed, but doesn't know what role it will have in the community.

"Dinner theaters are kind of done. They don't exist anymore for a reason because it's a bygone era," Mayo said. "You cannot bring back the past or recreate the glory, sometimes you have to adapt to what the current market is and the current market is not what they are building."  

There are also questions about parking for visitors to the historic venue. We counted roughly 35 spots in the parking lot and 19 on the street around the building for a venue that can hold up to 644 people. 

Plans also call for valet parking and when we asked the city about the parking, a spokesperson told Contact 5 the "CRA plans on using existing parking assets around the site."  

Mayo believes for the Sunset Lounge to shine, the CRA should go back to the drawing board and develop a new plan.

Sunset Lounge historic photo
The Sunset Lounge hosted some of the great Black musicians of the 1940s and 1950s.

 "The Sunset should be more of a community center for that area that can still be focused on the arts but involve everybody that's in that neighborhood, so it doesn't get too gentrified and everybody has to leave," Mayo said.  

That has people like Lia Gaines concerned about what it could mean for the future of the historic Northwest neighborhood as cranes pierce the horizon and development creeps closer.  

"They have no place else to expand to, so they have to come north," Gaines said.  

"It's still the area closest to downtown," Littles added. "It's still the area closest to the water."

And as Littles looks on to the future, he's hopeful for new musical memories at the Sunset Lounge and the historic Northwest neighborhood he knows so well.  

"I'd like to see more single-family homes that attract young Black folks going off to school, going off to work and coming back to the neighborhood," Littles said.  

The CRA recently estimated operating costs for the Sunset Lounge at around $26,000 a month to maintain the building.  

A spokesperson told Contact 5 that the city is expected to issue a new solicitation for the operation of the Sunset Lounge in the near future.  

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