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'This place helped me raise my son': Heartbreak for families, as Virginia Key center fights sudden shutdown

Aerial photo of Virginia Key
Canva
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Getty Images Signature
Aerial photo of Virginia Key

Bradley Luft, who manages operations at the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, keeps pictures with one of his summer camp CITs — or counselors in training. He thinks of Alex Zabowski more like a nephew.

In the first photograph, Alex is tiny, locked into a tight hug with Luft. In the second one, it’s the last day of summer camp this year and Alex is just as tall, if not taller, than Luft. This time, they’re saying goodbye: the city of Miami shut down the center, suddenly, that day, as fallout continued from a plan to house homeless people on the island.

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“He had gone down by the water to go look at it while his mom was talking to us. And you could tell, like he was holding back tears," Luft said.

"And then he goes on to the car after saying bye to everybody. And a couple minutes later, he comes out, like, just sobbing and comes and, you know, gives me a hug. And at that point, I’m in the same spot.”

For Alex’s mom, Nayomi Orriols, parting with the camp was equally heartbreaking. “I'm a single mom,” Orriols said. “This place has helped me raise my son, he's turned him from a little boy into a responsible young man. A very empathetic, understanding, and loving human being. And it's really sad to think that it could just all vanish.”

The summer camp, with 300 kids. Guided nature tours. Kayak rentals. They did all vanish.

The city owns the property – and Esther Alonso has been running her business there since 2015. City officials say she is behind on rent and doesn't have the proper paperwork to operate. Alonso says she's been trying to negotiate solutions with the city for months.

And although the dispute has been going on since January, the city's decision to close the center came shortly after Alonso began making noise about a plan to house the homeless on Virginia Key.

She emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the city’s controversial proposal to build “tiny homes” on the island – just steps away from the center.

“And if we don't do anything about protecting Virginia Key for this project and for the next project, we'll be back here again in a few months, doing it for something else,” Alonso said at a rally to stop the homeless encampment proposal, on Aug. 6.

That rally was on a Saturday. By Monday, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez asked the commission to put the “tiny homes” plan on hold. The city shut down the outdoor center on Friday afternoon.

Alonso and other staff members of the center have accused the city of retaliating against them for speaking out.

“Look at where we're at right now,” said Diana Perez-Pazos, the operations and marketing director of the center. “She’s still losing her business. You have maybe 17 people unemployed now. So this 100% seems like retaliation.”

The Virginia Key Outdoor Center, which was suddenly shutdown by the City of Miami in August of 2022.
Ali Bianco
/
WLRN
The Virginia Key Outdoor Center, which was suddenly shutdown by the City of Miami in August of 2022.

City Commissioner Joe Carollo has been the main proponent of the Virginia Key homeless encampment plan. And on the day the center closed, he denied any connection between his plan for the island and the city’s code enforcement.

“I’d like to find out what [Alonso] was drinking or smoking that she would accuse me of something like that. She’s got no proof of anything,” Carollo said to Channel 7 news.

In a statement, the city of Miami said the shutdown of the Outdoor Center was “inevitable.” It happened around 4 p.m. on Aug. 12, the last day of summer camp. Alonso wasn't there at the time — Perez-Pazos was supervising.

“We had children running around,” Perez-Pazos said. “We had customers renting their kayaks and paddleboards. I had a commander and an officer approach me asking for documents. Two officers later became seven. They explained that we're not able to be operating.”

City officials hit the outdoor center with two major code violations.

They were operating without a certificate of use or a business tax receipt. Both of these are official documents that you have to apply for through the city to run your business. Operating without them is a misdemeanor offense.

Officers told Perez-Pazos to sign a document that confirmed the center didn’t have the certificate or the tax receipt. They said that "technically" she was under arrest. They duct-taped the termination of the lease to the door of the retail room.

“After that, we start breaking down operations,” Perez-Pazos said. “We had a full moon kayak and paddleboard tour scheduled that night that was completely sold out. We had to call each and every one of those participants and inform them that we are closed and we are unable to conduct operations.”

Alonso applied for the certificate when she had first opened the center. The city never approved it, but she says she didn't know that.

Her lease for the outdoor center was for five years. But the center had to close for months at a time at different points during those years — because of Hurricane Irma, construction of a seawall and the COVID-19 pandemic. Alonso and her team argue they shouldn't have to pay rent for times when the center was closed.

The city claims she owes up to $140,000 in back rent. Once the city discovered that the center was operating without the certificate of use and business tax receipt, officials terminated the lease, they say.

Alonso takes some responsibility for what happened.

“I feel horrible that I screwed up in ways that have inhibited not only my ability to operate, but the staff's ability to continue to provide services and that we can't do what we've been doing,” Alonso said.

At the end of that last day of summer camp, when city officials arrived, some campers had yet to be picked up by their parents. Luft brought them across a field to some wooden tables, away from the chaos.

“We wanted to at least protect the last day of summer for those kids to send them all across and be like, hey, don't look at this,” Luft said. “Don't, don't look at what's going on.”

Alonso and her team hired attorneys to fight the shutdown.

And she is joining with local activist groups at the next city commission meeting, scheduled for Sept. 13, to call for codified protections to preserve Virginia Key’s North Point as a public park.

Ali Bianco is a junior at Northwestern University studying journalism and international studies.