The Sound of Holiday Music
Buddy the Elf once said, “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” So, what better way to get in the holiday spirit than listening to the 36th annual Merrick Festival Caroling Competition? The week-long event, which festival executive director Sally Baumgartner calls “the best kept secret in Coral Gables,” will this year bring 30 choruses from Miami-Dade high schools to the steps of the 550 Building on Biltmore Way. There, between the lion statues that flank the entrance, the students will compete to win $20,000 in cash prizes for their school music departments. The singing starts at 7 pm each night, from Wednesday, Nov. 30 to Saturday, Dec. 3, and then from 3 pm to 5:30 pm Sunday, Dec. 4.
The Gables Christmas tradition began in 1987, when the developers of the building, Al Sakolsky, and Ed McBride, decided to erect a 32-foot poinsettia “tree” consisting of a metal frame decorated with 1,200 poinsettia plants (see pg. 19). As he signed the check, Sakolsky reportedly said, “If I’m spending $20,000 on a Christmas tree, I want to at least have kids singing carols in front of it.” Over the years, the building’s different owners, including the CGI Merchant Group that purchased it in 2019, have continued the tradition. Since it began, the Merrick Festival has donated over $500,000 to school music programs, using funds from a wide range of public and private donors. “If you take the time to listen, these talented kids will blow you away,” says Baumgartner. “It really is a beautiful event.” For more information, go to: carolingcompetition.org.
If you look at a map of Coral Gables, you will see two rectangular pieces of unincorporated Miami-Dade County that cut into its flanks. One is south of Sunset, the Ponce-Davis neighborhood. The other is Little Gables, a missing tooth on the north end of the city, bounded by Salzedo, Mendoza, Cortez, and SW 8th Street. Over the years, the city has made several attempts to annex Little Gables; the last time was three and a half years ago when the county rejected the effort after newly elected Gables Commissioner Jorge Fors told the County Commission that Coral Gables residents did not want to annex it. At the time, absorbing the neighborhood, with its low-cost housing, would have been a financial burden.
That was then. Today, property values have soared in Little Gables. Homes that sold for $300,000 a few years ago now sell for more than a million dollars. With that stonger tax base, Mayor Vince Lago has re-ignited the annexation push. In a late August City Commission meeting, Lago proposed a resolution instructing city staff to begin gathering information about the impact of annexation on public safety, cost to the city, tax revenues – and the opinions of residents.
In the lengthy discussion that ensued, a parade of Little Gables residents urged the city to annex their 205-acre community, citing case after case of dangerously slow response from county police and fire rescue services because the enclave is surrounded by Coral Gables and the City of Miami. One man said it took five hours to get police to his home. Karen Shane, president of the Little Gables Neighborhood Association, described how a young woman died because of slow county EMS response time. Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak spoke strongly in favor of annexation since it would make protecting the city easier. “We need to square off the borders of the city, from a patrolling point of view,” he said.
Not everyone spoke in favor. Several Little Gables residents were concerned annexation would raise their taxes and force them to adhere to Coral Gables residential design standards. The most vociferous opposition came from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue union president William McAllister, who thought the Coral Gables fire department could not handle the additional coverage, saying he was “not sure” if public safety was a priority for the mayor. This drew a strong rebuke from the commission, including Vice Mayor Mike Mena, who called the remarks “The most asinine comments I have ever heard.”
The commission voted 4-1 to invest as much as $175,000 to fund the annexation effort. Only Fors voted against, “because of the price tag.” In the end the issue will be decided by the county commission, which Mayor Lago has already lobbied. “I have had conversations with the county commissioners, and I have explained to them the importance of annexation to the city,” says Lago. “It’s a no brainer. It’s literally a piece of the puzzle that is within our boundaries.” Lago, who has long railed against prostitution in the hourly motels on 8th Street in Little Gables, says, “This is an issue of public safety, number one.”
What the county commission decides may be determined by the election on Nov. 8, with seven of its 13 seats up for grabs. Fors was running for one of those seats, District 6; as of press time, the election had not taken place.
Loving Where you Work
The largest community bank headquartered in Coral Gables – actually, anywhere in the state – was just recognized by Newsweek as one of the Top 100 Most Loved Workplaces in the nation. Amerant Bank, headquartered on Alhambra Circle, came in at No. 54. The results were determined by the Best Practice Institute, based on surveys of more than 1.4 million employees at companies ranging in size from 50 to 10,000 workers. The study looked at how well companies respected and appreciated their employees, based on how workers felt. “We are truly proud,” said beaming Amerant CEO Jerry Plush after learning about the award.
A Park is Born and Dedicated
Nothing brings Gablelites together like dedicating a new park. Despite a growling sky and rain drops that forced the crowd to open their umbrellas, about one hundred well-wishers assembled last month to witness the ribbon cutting for Lamar Louise Curry Park, on De Soto Boulevard directly across the street from the Venetian Pool. The triangular plot had long been a scruffy afterthought of city property. That was before the Coral Gables Garden Club used a donation of $200,000 left by Ms. Curry in her will for the purpose of creating a flowering park. Ms. Curry herself was a member of the Garden Club for 42 years, “a teacher, historian, storyteller and philanthropist” according to their website. Mayor Don Slesnick, who spoke at the event, was himself a former student. “She taught history as an ongoing series of stories about human beings, not just a dry recitation,” he said, remembering a warning at the time to avoid her class because “she actually made you study.” Ms. Curry, who lived to 106, taught an estimated 6,000 students, including former Florida Gov. Bob Graham. “I think she would have been happy with this park,” said Club President Susan Rodriguez. Also speaking were Community Recreation Director Fred Couceyro, Mayor Vince Lago, former club president Betsy Tilghman, and realtor Audrey Ross. The park is planted with flowering shrubs and trees that Ms. Curry adored, including Drawf Ylang Ylang trees, yellow Royal Poincianas, Lignum Vitaes, and Red Orchid trees.
Coral Gables at the Top
Last month, Coral Gables cracked the Top 15 in three separate national lists for people looking to move or invest here. In Opendoor’s Top Family-Friendly Cities and Towns, the Gables came in at No. 11. In HomeSnacks’ Best Cities to Live in Florida in 2022, Coral Gables was No. 8 behind Key Biscayne at No. 4. And in Dottid’s Best Cities for ESG Investing, it was also No. 8. The Gables made Opendoor’s list for residential real estate based on academic excellence, small-town feel, and the great outdoors. (To be fair, they didn’t include how hard it is to find a property here.) HomeSnacks, which uses data from the Census, FBI, and other sources to professionally rank areas around the US, used metrics like median income, unemployment rate, commute time, education levels, and health insurance coverage. Dottid, meanwhile, is a commercial real estate technology platform which ranks based on ESG investing (ESG stands for Economy, Environmental, Social, and Governance). According to their website, “Coral Gables is known for its architecture and gorgeous botanic garden… and many of its well-known businesses are going green.”