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West Palm Beach bucks lawsuit, hands Sunset Lounge to Miami company

In its heyday, Sunset Lounge once hosted likes of Ella Fitzgerald, other blues, jazz greats
Sunset Lounge.PNG
Posted at 6:02 PM, Jul 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-27 09:35:42-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Rather than start from scratch to select an operator for the iconic Sunset Lounge, city officials agreed to negotiate with the second-place bidder.

Mayor Keith James, who supported the decision to negotiate with Miami-based Mad Room Hospitality, had been on the losing end of the June 27 vote to hand the job to a local, Black-owned group, Vita Lounge LLC.

But the city’s procurement officer, who works for James, threw out Vita’s bid on July 12. Vita protested and on Monday filed a lawsuit, seeking an emergency injunction to block the city from awarding the contract to someone else.

That same day, the City Commission, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, agreed to begin negotiating a contract with Mad Room.

Black residents had argued in favor of Vita, saying the group led by Bamboo Room operator Darrin Cummings would do the best job of restoring the long-vacant ballroom in the historically Black Northwest Neighborhood, just outside of downtown.

But the city disqualified Vita for urging residents to voice support, saying Facebook posts violated a no-lobbying clause. It also said Cummings violated city rules by making comments about the historical importance of the lounge in an interview.

On Monday, CRA staff explained that moving forward with Mad Room could result in a February 2023 opening of the 150-seat restaurant and second-floor ballroom. It would cost the CRA about $13,000 a month for insurance, power, maintenance and other costs, staff told commissioners. Seeking new bidders could double those expenses and push back the opening date by six months.

Mayor Keith James
Mayor Keith James speaks at a news conference on the city's water advisory on June 3, 2021.

While Commissioners Shalonda Warren and Christy Fox backed starting over, James gained support for working with Mad Room from Commissioners Christina Lambert and Cathleen Ward. Commissioner Joseph Peduzzi did not attend.

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

On Monday, James urged his colleagues to move forward with Mad Room, despite concerns that the company doesn’t have any relationships in the neighborhood or with the West Palm Beach arts community.

“I think we have to take advantage of what we have in front of us, which is a highly qualified vendor, and work with them on building their relationships in the community,” James said.

Mad Room Hospitality is co-owned by brothers Zach and Ben Bush and Bill Fuller. 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.

Last year, they filed a lawsuit seeking $28 million in damages against the city of Miami over what they called unlawful orders to close their two Miami restaurants.

In their June 27 presentation to the city, they said they only had about 10 days to prepare, but they did so because they loved the building’s historic importance and retaining history is a critical element of their approach.

“We come in as outsiders to the community,” Zach Bush said. "We felt it was so important with our DNA that we felt it was a marriage we had to explore. You can't just invent a venue with history.”

In its lawsuit, Vita attorney F. Malcolm Cunningham Jr. wrote that the city extended its original March deadline for proposals until May 16 after just one company, Vita, responded in time. Mad Room was the only other company to submit a proposal.

The Sunset Lounge drew some of the biggest names in Black entertainment during the Jim Crow era of enforced racial segregation in the 1940s and 1950s. Among the stars who played there were Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.

As the neighborhood immediately northwest of downtown fell into disrepair with the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the lounge fell on hard times. The city began contemplating buying and restoring it in the early 2000s but made its first move with a 2015 decision to buy the site and the block in front of it, where the city decided to build a park.

In total, the city paid $2.6 million for the two blocks and engaged REG Architects to restore the historic building to its 1940s appearance.

The city has spent more than $17 million to restore the building, build the Heart and Soul Park and add a second building next to the lounge with a full kitchen, dressing rooms and elevators to provide access for the disabled.

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