Legal spats delay opening of West Palm Beach's historic Sunset Lounge
The 1920s-era Sunset Lounge in the predominantly Black Northwest Historic District just outside of downtown West Palm Beach brought to the city legendary musical artists. Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Sam Cooke and Count Basie, to name just a few.
The jazz venue was set to re-open last winter after years of planning delays and a nearly $20 million tax-funded renovation.
But, as one of Palm Beach County's most anticipated community projects, it has been sidelined by a complex legal dispute between West Palm Beach and the Black-owned Vita Lounge, LLC, the local entertainment company that won the city's bid to manage the Sunset over a year ago.
F. Malcolm Cunningham, Vita’s attorney, told WLRN the city owes his firm “under a $1 million” in court-ordered fees and said the “delay” in opening Sunset is the result of ongoing litigation ahead of management negotiations.
Judge rules against disqualification
Last year, the city of West Palm Beach and its Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA, had disqualified Vita from managing the Sunset because the company was determined by an “unelected government employee” — court records show — to have violated the city’s anti-lobbying policy. Earlier this year, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Carolyn Bell ruled against the city’s decision, calling the disqualification quote “arbitrary and capricious” and done in “bad faith.”
Bell ordered the city to pay Vita’s attorneys fees and meet with the firm to exchange billing documents to determine what the company is owed.
“The city's or the CRA attorneys indicated to the judge that the procedure that the judge had outlined was acceptable to them. Then we met and conferred by telephone, and then I provided my billing information,” Cunningham said. “And when I did not hear back from the CRA, I made an inquiry.”
Cunningham said the city didn’t provide billing information and told him they had to hire a large outside firm, Akerman LLP, to dispute the attorney’s fees.
“The new law firm obviously was brought in to extend, if you will, the litigation, because we really got nothing accomplished with respect to trying to come to a number that would be acceptable to both sides,” Cunningham said.
“I can't tell you what the CRA is thinking, but they did not make a counteroffer to me and the more they delay, the longer it will take for Vita to get its significant money back.”
Cunningham said he thought the matter would be resolved in under 90 days but “it could take it could take in excess of six months.”
In response to WLRN, city of West Palm Beach officials sent a statement. It stated, in part, that the fee dispute will not delay the opening of the Sunset Lounge and the city won't comment on ongoing litigation.
A contentious bidding process
West Palm Beach mayor Keith James, who is Black, did not support Vita Lounge. He had urged his colleagues during city commission meetings to support Vita's bidding competitor, Mad Room Hospitality, which is co-owned by Bill Fuller and brothers Zach and Ben Bush.
James' reasoning: Mad Room has more resources and management experience. Commissioner Joseph Peduzzi backed James assertions.
But Vita's supporters and other Black residents took to social media to advocate for a Black-owned operation that would adhere to the venue's Black historical significance. They expressed that the Miami-based Mad Room didn’t have any cultural connections to the area unlike Darrin Cummings, vice president of Vita, who operates the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth Beach.
Commissioners Christy Fox, Shalonda Warren, Cathleen Ward, and Christina Lambert voted for Vita during a June 27, 2022, meeting.
Vita won the bidding process, only for the city to disqualify its win on the grounds that the company violated the city’s anti-lobbying rules, claiming that Vita urged its supporters to use social media to lobby city officials. And that Cummings also violated anti-lobbying provisions by making public comments about the lounge during a news interview.
Then, Vita called out the city for James’ direct correspondence with Mad Room after the bidding process. The city, under more scrutiny, had disqualified Mad Room for violating the same anti-lobbying rules.
Vita won its lawsuit earlier this against the city, which restored its winning bid but an attorney’s fee dispute is now pushing back management negotiations.
"Discussions are underway"
The upscale, Sunset Cocktail Lounge, on the corner of Eighth Street and Henrietta Avenue, just west of Rosemary and north of downtown West Palm Beach, attracted some of the most influential jazz and soul singers from the 1930s through the '70s. On some nights, the two-story lounge drew as many as 1,000 people dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos.
It attracted some of the most iconic Black musicians, who were excluded from other venues in the segregated South.
The new 12,308-square-foot building has a full-service restaurant and 150-seat bar along with an elevated stage and mezzanine. The addition of a new two-story 7,200 sq. ft. building, which is attached to the existing lounge, features a roof garden, broadcast facility, the restaurant kitchen, office space, and box office.
The Heart & Soul Park, a completed music-themed park and playground, located directly across the street from the Sunset Lounge, is already open.
In regards to actually managing the Sunset, Cunningham, Vita’s attorney, said “some discussions are underway,” despite the attorney’s fee dispute.
“But as I say, the litigation associated with the attorneys fees is distracting to both sides. And in the absence of this litigation, I think that the negotiations will go a lot faster,” Cunningham said.
“Obviously, I believe that the court is right. I guess I'm shocked that the city would pursue a disqualification when it knew or should have known that the disqualification was arbitrary and capricious and in bad faith.”
The city also hired an outside consulting firm to negotiate management details.