West Palm Beach officials chose a local-based operator for the Sunset Lounge on Monday night, capping a protracted process that pitted a non-Black Miami-based group against one led by Black residents eager to oversee the return of a venue that was once the cultural hub of the city’s largely Black Northwest neighborhood.
The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which purchased the 1920s-era supper club and a nearby parcel in 2015, must still negotiate a contract with the winning bidder, Vita, LLC, a collection of restaurant, hotel management, accounting and food experts who came together in a bid to win management of the lounge.
That contract could be brought to Mayor Keith James and city commissioners, who serve as the CRA’s board of directors, as soon as August.
As with most things regarding the city’s efforts to have the Sunset restored, getting to this point has been a challenge.
The city has poured $16 million into the project, which has been dogged by delays and deadline extensions.
Now, though, the Sunset Lounge is on track to be awarded a temporary certificate of occupancy as soon as late July with an opening set for late this year or early 2023.
If management contract negotiations go smoothly, Vita will be determining what food is offered and what musical acts are booked at a venue that once hosted the likes of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and James Brown.
That’s a big if given that Vita, unlike its competitor, Mad Room Hospitality, said it hopes to use $850,000 in city taxpayer money for start-up costs.
Vita leaned into its local connections in making its pitch.
“We are this community,” said Naeima Frieson, who is slated to serve as Vita’s co-director of sales and operations. “Every time we set foot in it, we see our mothers, our grandmothers, our aunts, our uncles. And we believe that no one is able to passionately tell our story better than this group.”
Representatives of Mad Room, which operates restaurants, bars and lounges in Miami and Oakland Park, acknowledged that their lack of local ties were a hurdle they’d need to clear.
“One of the things we recognize is that we come in as outsiders, and I understand how that could be viewed as a challenge,” Zach Bush, a Mad Room co-owner, told city commissioners. “But I want to let everyone up there know we have had meaningful conservations with people in the community.”
James and commissioners were impressed by Mad Room’s track record, which includes operation of the Ball and Chain bar and lounge in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, the Mai-Kai, a Tiki bar in Oakland Park, and Taquerias El Mexicano and Los Altos, a Mexican bar and restaurant in Miami.
Zach Bush and his brother and fellow Mad Room co-owner, Ben Bush, told commissioners they had the resources to operate the Sunset and had backing from their bank.
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“We have an established financial capacity and track record,” Ben Bush said. “We do not anticipate requesting public funds, and our bank has also confirmed they are willing to work with us on financing.”
A CRA technical committee evaluated the Vita and Mad Room bids on a variety of factors, including their qualifications and experience, their marketing strategies, their funding, potential community benefits, planning assurances and small and minority business participation. 
Bidders participated in an event with local community members where they offered glimpses into what foods and entertainment options they’d offer.
Mad Room edged out Vita in both categories, getting a one-point edge from the technical committee and a 4.2-point edge from the community event.
But Mad Room was playing on Vita’s home court. And what Vita’s bid lacked in experience as a group in operating entertainment venues, they made up for in local firepower, which included Darryl Bey, who once produced events at the Sunset Lounge, and Marvin Woods, a chef who prepared a State Dinner for the Obamas and who kicked off former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move,” diet and fitness program.
Vita presenters also touted a range of programs and benefits they said their management of the Sunset Lounge would bring.
The group said it would operate a subscription concert series and offer dancing lessons, R&B, karaoke and poetry nights, a gospel Sunday brunch, a community green market and jazz history lessons for elementary school students. Vita’s bid also included the formation of a non-profit dedicated to providing assistance to the Northwest, a once vibrant Black community in the city that has struggled with crime and economic decline in recent years.
Commissioners had expressed frustration with the limited number of bidders, and James sought to address criticism that a non-Black firm was being allowed to bid for management of the lounge.
“It’s a process,” he said. “We put out an RFP (request for proposal). We can’t say in an RFP ‘only Black people can apply. Only Hispanic people can apply.’ That’s not the way we do business in this city. It is disheartening to me that some have chosen to play the race card with respect to where we are today.”
For much of Monday’s meeting, the focus was on the merits of the dueling bids.
But as commissioners began digging into the pros and cons of those bids, Commissioner Christina Lambert acknowledged what had only been obliquely referenced before – some Black residents had taken to social media to push for a Black group to be granted management of a venue that had once been so important to the city’s Black community.
What followed was an unusually blunt discussion of the racial aspects of the management decision that was devoid of the allusions and oblique references that often mark political discussions of race.
Lambert had been trying to explain how she viewed the experiences of each bidder, but she cut her remarks short after someone from the audience scoffed.
“If we vote tonight, you have my vote,” Lambert said, pausing several times in what appeared to be an effort to keep her composure. “But what I don’t like … it seems like it has just gotten ugly, and I don’t feel comfortable with that. I saw some ugly things on social media this week. I saw the community dividing. We should be working together.”
While Lambert and other white commissioners said they were hearing from residents castigating them for potentially granting management of the Sunset to a non-Black group, the city’s Black elected officials – James and Commissioner Shalonda Warren – said they were hearing it, too.
Residents seemed to understand that Warren was looking favorably upon Vita’s bid while James was warming to the bid from Mad Room.
“I saw some ugly things as well, some things I didn’t like that didn’t reflect my opinion,” Warren said. “When I extend my vote, please make no mistake that my vote is not simply because one team is Black. My vote is because I believe that the team that I vote for has the ability to do what we are asking them to do.”
Warren, who had earlier expressed appreciation for Vita’s local ties, said she opposed any attempt to put her or Vita “in a box.”
James countered that viewpoint, saying criticisms of Mad Room as outsiders who should not be given a chance to manage a historically Black venue were off base.
“That’s a two-way street,” the mayor said. “We can’t simply say that because someone does not come from here that they are lesser. We can’t on the one hand expect respectful treatment – not to put someone in a box – and then put the other side in a box.”
Commissioner Cathleen Ward said that she, too, had seen harsh comments on social media.
“When we hear things, and we did hear things, about ‘If you don’t pick this side, you’re racist,’ as someone who is not part of the African-American race, it makes me automatically go like, ‘Whoa, geez, what did I do wrong?’ ” Ward said. “But it also diminishes those actual times that it is inherent bias in a system. We all know that exists. We know that actual racism exists. Inherent bias exists.”
James, referring to remarks he had made earlier in the evening, said the online remarks were “an attempt to bully the members of this dais.”
The mayor said that tactic won’t work with him.
“I’ll say right now I’m not one to be bullied,” he said. “I’ve been called a whole bunch of things. I’ve been called everything but a child of God for decisions that I’ve made on this dais. I’m not going to be bullied into taking a certain position because of threats ‘You’re a racist, you’re an Uncle Tom’ or whatever y’all want to say. I’m going to continue to do the best job that I can each and every day and make the best decision that I can and be transparent about it.”
James ultimately joined Commissioner Joseph Peduzzi in backing Mad Room’s bid.
But after the votes of Commissioners Christy Fox, Ward, Warren and Lambert were announced in favor of Vita, supporters of that bid sprang to their feet, clapped and hugged.
Wayne Washington covers West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and race relations. E-mail tips to wwashington@pbpost.com.