Jimmy Morales Talks Miami Beach.
Ex-City manager talks about his regrets and the future of Miami Beach.
BY: James Cubby
Miami Beach native Jimmy Morales has ended his impressive eight-year stint as Miami Beach City Manager overseeing the city through ups and downs including the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of his resignation in October, his future was open but now he will join newly elected Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava as the Chief Operations Officer of the county. When Morales accepted the job as City Manager, he was no stranger to the community. He grew up on Miami Beach - attending Miami Beach Senior High and later graduating from Harvard and Harvard Law School. Miami Beach Life Magazine chatted with Morales (who ended his role of City Manager on December 11) about his future, his accomplishments, and Miami Beach.
"When I submitted my resignation, I had no immediate plan"
MBL: What’s next?
JM: When I submitted my resignation, I had no immediate plans. After the election Daniella Levine Cava asked me to join her staff as Chief Operations Officer.
MBL: What has changed during your eight years at City Manager?
JM: When I came in office the local culture and City Hall were challenged. In the eight years I’ve worked, we have seen quite a few changes. It was a tremendous workload. We saw the completion of a new Convention Center. We hosted Art Basel Miami Beach and Super Bowl. We have done an incredible amount of work on resiliency and climate change. I’m very proud of our flood control. During storms I’ve watched Bryan Norcross (television meteorologist and hurricane specialist for WPLG-TV Channel 10) announce the many flooded areas but will mention that the streets of Miami Beach are dry.
MBL: COVID closed Ocean Drive but now a good percentage of the hotels and restaurants have reopened to a new pedestrian-only street. You’ve received both positive and negative feedback for closing the street.
JM: The transformation of Ocean Drive into a pedestrian-only street has been tremendous. It’s like walking down the French Riviera. The hotels and restaurants have historically fought the transformation of Ocean Drive into a pedestrian only street. After COVID it made sense to close the street to traffic and the restaurants and tourists are loving it. As a pedestrian-only street, it allows people to see actually the buildings. In the future, there are plans to raise the street so it’s more like a walkway.
MBL: Washington Avenue is going through changes as well. Two new hotels will be opening soon, and the street has a new bikes-only lane.
JM: There’s a whole transformation happening. Not only the new hotels but with the Wolfsonian – FIU Museum’s new expansion project. Miami Beach is evolving with the times.
(In other interviews Morales offered up a list of accomplishments during his reign including: “A state-of-the-art Convention Center, first two LEED certified buildings built by the City, four new historic districts in North Beach, the creation of a town center district in North Beach, the creation of a North Beach Community Redevelopment Agency to promote responsible development and investment in infrastructure, a $450 million GOB program that will build critical infrastructure for the city’s future, a resiliency program and stormwater management program that will be critical to fighting the existential challenges of sea level rise and climate change, and approximately 20 acres of new parks and greenspace.”)
MBL: What have been some of your biggest challenges as City Manager?
JM: The Entertainment District is a challenge. Today it’s a different scene. We’ve always been known as a nightlife destination, but times are changing. Do we want to continue to be known as a party town or for a city of the arts? We want to grow into a high-end community.
"I wish I would of done more in North Beach"
MBL: This year has offered up its share of struggles. You’ve been praised for your work leading Miami Beach during the pandemic. How has COVID affected Miami Beach?
JM: COVID has certainly changed Miami Beach. That has to be dealt with. Things aren’t going to change a lot until we get through this pandemic. This could last two to three 3 years. Miami Beach has 30% occupancy in the hotels. No one is coming. Our main income is hospitality. We need to encourage people to travel. Miami Beach is a great destination. It’s open and activities are outside. People are moving here from some of the bigger cities. There are great reasons to move to Florida like no state income tax. Of course, we must create a good infrastructure. After COVID people are realizing they can work anywhere if they’re working from home. So maybe we should create more office spaces for people not wanting to work from home.
MBL: What attracts travelers to Miami Beach?
JM: We have one of the most incredible urban beaches anywhere. We have a sophisticated beach community. The Historic Preservation has transformed Miami Beach with its large collection of Art Deco buildings into a valuable asset. It’s all part of the economic engine
MBL: This is your hometown so where do you take visitors?
JM: One stop is Smith & Wollensky to show off South Pointe Park and the incredible views. From one side you can see the ocean and on the other side you can see the Port of Miami and downtown Miami. You can see a sunrise over the ocean and a sunset over downtown. You can’t beat that. I always take people to Ocean Drive. People love the Art Deco buildings. It reminds them of Miami Vice. Everyone loves Miami Vice. I also love taking people to the Soundscape Park for a Wallcast concert of the New World Symphony. Sitting outside under the stars and watching the symphony on the big screen is very special.
MBL: Miami Beach depends heavily on tourist dollars. What do you consider to be some of the big attractions of Miami Beach?
JM: Number one is the beach. Next the Art Deco architecture and Ocean Drive – one of the most famous streets in the world. Ocean Drive is unique with its architecture, outdoor cafés, park, and beach. Our new Convention Center is a beautiful new attraction especially when hosting a great event like Art Basel Miami Beach. I always take people to the Fontainebleau – one of Miami Beach’s iconic hotels.
MBL: We talked about your accomplishments so what are some of the things you didn’t do but wish you had?
JM: I wish we had moved slower on the storm water plan. We could have done a better job.
I wish I could have done more in North Beach. I also wish I could have seen the completion of a Headquarter Hotel built next to the Convention Center. That would have been a great legacy. It will happen.
MBL: Any final words to the readers of Miami Beach Life Magazine?
JM: It’s been a great pleasure coming back to my hometown Miami Beach and serving the community. I will always have my door open for the people of Miami Beach.
"I will never forget Miami Beach, i had a great team in place"
MBL: You’re a North Beach boy. What’s happening in North Beach.
JM: Yes, I grew up in North Beach. I love North Beach. There’s a lot happening there. Many projects have been approved like the Ocean Side Park and a new Aquatic Center. We’re not sure what’s happening with the Byron Carlyle Theater. The building’s infrastructure is in bad condition, so the city is still deciding what’s best for that space. The Deauville has cast a big shadow on North Beach. That iconic hotel has always been a major draw for that neighborhood. Many of the businesses are suffering since its closing. We’re fighting hard to save it.
MBL: So now you’re going to start a new job as Chief Operations Officer of the county.
JM: Now that I’m going to the county, I see a lot of work to be done. I’ll be working a lot with divisions like Public Transportation and Water & Sewer. Some of that work will benefit Miami Beach. I will never forget Miami Beach. I had a great team in place here and most likely someone from my team will be selected as the new City Manager.