West Palm: Winning bidder for Sunset Lounge management contract violated anti-lobbying rules

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The newly renovated  Sunset Lounge where jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, James Brown, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong performed in this 2020 photo in West Palm Beach.
The newly renovated Sunset Lounge where jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, James Brown, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong performed in this 2020 photo in West Palm Beach.

West Palm Beach has informed Vita Lounge, the local Black group that beat back stiff competition to manage the city's Sunset Lounge, that it violated anti-lobbying rules during the bidding process and has been disqualified.

The city's decision, relayed to Vita in a letter on July 12, is yet another hurdle that must be cleared before the famed Sunset Lounge, once a cultural hub of the city's Northwest community that hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Count Basie, can be re-opened.

F. Malcolm Cunningham Jr., an attorney who represents Vita, said he is still studying the issue.

"I'm not prepared to make any statement right now," he said, adding that he does plan to send the city a letter in response to the disqualification notice.

In notifying Vita of its disqualification, the city's Procurement Division included instances of contact between Vita backers and city commissioners, who serve as board members of the Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA has used at least $16 million in city taxpayer money to purchase and refurbish the 1920s era supper club and lounge.

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The redevelopment of the lounge, a point of great pride for the many Black residents of the Northwest, has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, which frustrated city officials even as they pledged to move forward with the project.

In addition to emails to commissioners from Vita supporters, the Procurement Division also said Vita's vice president, Darrin Cummings, violated anti-lobbying rules by suggesting on Facebook that supporters of Vita's bid reach out to city officials.

More than 1,000 elegantly gowned women and tuxedoed men crushed onto the Sunset Cocktail Lounge and Ballroom's polished dance floor to hear popular bands during the club's heyday.
More than 1,000 elegantly gowned women and tuxedoed men crushed onto the Sunset Cocktail Lounge and Ballroom's polished dance floor to hear popular bands during the club's heyday.

CRA officials and Vita were to negotiate a management contract that was to be brought to city commissioners in August.

It is not clear how the CRA will proceed or whether Vita's disqualification will delay the re-opening of the Sunset, which was scheduled to take place later this year or early in 2023.

“It is important and fair that procurement rules be followed by all proposers to an RFP," West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James said, referring to the request for proposal to which Vita and other bidders responded. "It is unfortunate that Vita, LLC had to be disqualified as the operator of the historic Sunset Lounge. Everyone must follow the same rules."

The CRA staff is preparing a list of options for board members to consider.

Mad Room Hospitality, a Miami-based group that manages other restaurants and lounges, was the second-place bidder.

James had backed Mad Room's bid in a process where he and commissioners relayed instances where Black supporters of Vita's bid suggested it would be racist for the city to award the management contract to a non-Black group.

The mayor, the fourth Black person to hold that position in the city's history, bristled at those suggestions and backed Mad Room's bid, saying he wanted to make sure the lounge was put in the best possible position to succeed.

Vita's disqualification marked the second time in a week when something went wrong in a high-profile CRA bidding process.

A day before Vita was told of its disqualification, the CRA board voted to end negotiations with 1909, the small business incubator that had won a bid to purchase the CRA-owned building at 314 Clematis Street.

Roog told board members that 1909 was planning to enter into a joint venture with a different group than the one it mentioned as it made its pitch for 314 Clematis Street.

That change, he said, required board members to move to the second-place bidder or re-start the process of selling the building.

The board voted to begin negotiations with the second-place bidder, Brand Atlantic, whose bid called for the building to be used for retail, office and restaurant space.

James said that, in the wake of Vita's disqualification, the Sunset Lounge project will move forward.

"This setback does not impact the renovation of the Sunset Lounge, the future vibrancy of the Historic Northwest, or the Sunset’s Lounge’s viability as a future cultural destination, honoring and celebrating our city’s rich African American and music histories," he said. "The process to select a candidate with whom to negotiate for the operations of the Sunset Lounge will advance. And the city will continue to enforce the code to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all who participate in the city’s procurement of goods and services. The future of the Sunset Lounge still remains very, very bright.”

Wayne Washington covers West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and race relations. E-mail tips to wwashington@pbpost.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: West Palm: Group that won Sunset Lounge bid violated anti-lobbying rules