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Drama at historic Sunset Lounge now involves accusations against both would-be operators

Revamped West Palm Beach venue once hosted top acts like Ella Fitzgerald, other jazz greats
Sunset Lounge, July 15, 2022
Posted at 6:39 PM, Jul 28, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — For the city of West Palm Beach, it was to be a jewel in its redevelopment efforts — a demonstration that it values the history of the black Northwest Neighborhood near downtown.

Instead, choosing an operator for the revamped Sunset Lounge has deteriorated into accusations, lawsuits and race politics.

All of the drama certainly gives new meaning to the term bidding war.

Contact 5 obtained a letter on Thursday against the now preferred bidder negotiating to run a venue that once hosted the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

The rival group Vita Lounge LLC was ousted for reported illegal lobbying.

In a letter to the city, an attorney for Vita now claims their replacement — Mad Room Entertainment — is also guilty of illegally lobbying.

Sunset Lounge.PNG

Vita Lounge lost the chance to run a project that has cost taxpayers about $20 million when the city said it violated its law on lobbying.

The city's procurement official, Paul Bassar, claimed that Vita made posts on Facebook urging residents to voice support to help in its final negotiating, the city announced.

The City Council sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency voted a month ago to choose Vita Lounge, a Black-owned local group, to operate the supper club with some 150 seats on the first floor.

Headed by Darrin Cummings, the group also runs Lake Worth's Bamboo Room, the once-time blues venue turned hip-hop club.

Mayor Keith James, however, wanted the Miami-based Mad Room Hospitality to operate the Sunset Lounge. The meeting June 27 was tinged with racial overtones.

West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James speaks at a news conference on April 17, 2020.
West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James speaks at a news conference on April 17, 2020.

When Bassar booted Vita Lounge, the city moved on to Mad Room.

Vita on Monday filed a lawsuit and is seeking an injunction from keeping the city from moving forward with Mad Room.

Now, the attorney for Vita Lounge is claiming in a letter that Mad Room violated the same lobbying ordinance by communicating with James by email.

Mad Room Hospitality is co-owned by Bill Fuller and brothers Zach and Ben Bush. They bought, restored and operate the Ball & Chain Bar and Lounge and Taquerias El Mexicano in Miami and the Mai-Kai Restaurant & Polynesian Show in Oakland Park.

Contact 5 reached out to Zach Bush, operator of Mad Room, for comment but did not receive a phone call back. The city also did not return our e-mail for comment.

In Thursday's letter by Vita Lounge's attorney, F. Malcolm Cunningham, the company included an e-mail exchange on June 27 and June 28 between James and Bush with the subject line "Thank You."

Bush wrote the mayor to thank him for his support despite not being selected.

"That being said, we understand how important this project is to the entire city and specifically the Northwest District," Bush wrote.

The mayor responded the next day, stating in the e-mail, "I still believe your company was the best fit for the project."

On June 27, in a meeting tinged with racial overtones, Commissioner Christina Lambert and Cathleen Ward joined Shalonda Warren and Christy Fox in voting to select Vita. Peduzzi and James backed Mad Room.

When Bassar kicked out Vita, Warren and Fox wanted to start the process of finding an operator over. But James, Lambert and Ward choose to go with Mad Room.

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