Spotlight on Palm Beach

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For generations, this discreetly wealthy Florida town has lived and partied out of the spotlight. Now, with the president regularly in town, things are changing. Judith Miller reports.

The Palm Beach Post had no problem highlighting the day’s most important news on April 30, 2017: "19 of Donald Trump’s first 100 were Florida days," its headline declared. Since becoming the nation’s 45th president, Donald Trump had made seven trips to his Mar-a-Lago estate, his so-called winter White House, spending 4191⁄4 hours, or one-fifth of his time in office, there.

In Palm Beach and throughout the nation, Trump’s visits, and indeed whatever else happens in the nation’s wealthiest, most insular town, have become news. For better or worse, the 16-mile-long barrier island, whose population can swell from 10,000 to 30,000 in its winter season, is now firmly on the map. For many who live in this enclave of privilege, over 96 percent of them white, such prominence is both a virtue and a source of annoyance and resentment. (I have owned an apartment in town since 2013.)

While Trump’s weekend visits have boosted tourism and property values, they have also brought more congestion, traffic, and airport closures and delays, as well as a torrent of media scrutiny—all of which Palm Beach residents have traditionally loathed.

Palm Beach and its environs have seen regular protests of hundreds, and even thousands, since November 7. For while Palm Beachers voted overwhelmingly for Trump—not because they liked him but because they hated Democrats, Hillary Clinton in particular— voters in far larger Palm Beach County, including towns like West Palm Beach, Lantana, Boca Raton, Lake Worth, and Delray, supported Clinton. Even some Trump supporters now express qualms (ever so quietly; they are rarely willing to be quoted by name), not about their electoral choice but about disruptions to their daily routine.

Until his improbable political ascension, Trump, in many ways, was an outsider here—far more so than at New York’s Trump Tower, his residence prior to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Members of the Old Guard insist that even after his 1985 purchase of Mar-a-Lago, the 128-room mansion built by breakfast-cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in the roaring ’20s, and his decision a decade later to turn it into a private club, he was not invited to join the exclusive neighboring Bath and Tennis Club (the “B and T,” as locals call it), or the equally Waspy Everglades, or the century-old Palm Beach Country Club, their Jewish equivalent. (Palm Beach is almost 50 percent Jewish, according to Ira M. Sheskin, a professor at the University of Miami who specializes in American Jewish demography.)

Trump has always denied that he was excluded. As early as 1990, he told a reporter that the locals majorly suck up to him. Reports of his social-pariah status were totally false, he said, a denial he repeated when I interviewed him in February at the 60th annual Red Cross Ball, the first charity gala he attended at Mar-a-Lago as president.

Whether or not Trump was socially ostracized, he is now enjoying sweet revenge. “He has taken over the B and T’s parking lot,” said Laurence Leamer, a Palm Beach resident and author of The President’s Butler, a novel about a flamboyant New Yorker who becomes president. “They despise him because he beat them.” The Secret Service now uses the B and T’s parking area to screen the cars for Mar-a-Lago galas and benefits. Soon after the election, Mar-a-Lago doubled its membership fee, to $200,000, while keeping annual dues at $14,000. Members say they have been besieged by nonmember friends seeking invitations to lunch or dinner on the club’s elegant terrace. The 500-member club now accepts between 20 and 40 members a year and has a waiting list. When I dined on the club’s terrace in early spring as a member’s guest, Mar-a-Lago’s managing director, Bernd Lembcke, confirmed that interest in the club has soared. He declined to answer other questions.

Other beneficiaries of the “Trump bump” are tourism, real estate agents, and prices. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to South Florida for a two-day meeting with Trump put an international spotlight on the entire Gold Coast, the 50 miles along the Atlantic from Jupiter Island to Boca Raton that are dotted with pockets of privilege. The U.S. Travel Association says that Chinese tourists are among America’s fastest-growing and highest-spending groups of travelers. The Palm Beach Post reported that during Xi’s visit, virtually every room of the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa, seven miles from Mar-a-Lago, was booked by the Chinese delegation, which numbered in the hundreds. Some 300,000 of the 2.6 million Chinese who came to the U.S. in 2016 visited South Florida, each spending an average of $7,201 during their travels—more than tourists from any other country.

Golf course owners are pleased too. Tony Chateauvert, Palm Beach’s professional golf manager, said that beautiful weather and publicity generated by Trump’s visits—not counting his 17 excursions to his own golf course—had prompted an increase of 2,000 rounds over this year’s anticipated rounds at the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course. Chateauvert told the Palm Beach Daily News that annual rounds would be 38,000 rather than the 36,000 that had been predicted. Golf cart fees also rose for nonresidents.

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Car-rental companies are delighted as well. An employee of Payless told me that the Secret Service rents every available SUV and van in town during presidential visits. “There’s not a large car to be had,” the employee said.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. James A. Powell, a marine biologist who heads the Sea to Shore Alliance, is concerned about the manatees that congregate near the  runoff waters of Florida Power and Light’s plant near the town, attracting a steady stream of tourists. Because Palm Beach is close to the Gulf Stream, water temperatures, particularly outside the plant, hover around 70 degrees, perfect for manatee survival. Several of the dozen or so manatees I saw at the plant in February had lengthy scars on their backs—the result of near-lethal encounters with fishing nets or boats. “Donald Trump means more people and more boats,” said Powell, whose group is trying to protect the endangered mammals. “That’s tough on the manatees.” 

The establishment of a no-fly zone with a 30-mile radius centered at Mar-a-Lago has also been devastating for Lantana Airport, a small facility where the 9/11 hijackers once took flying lessons. Located some six miles southwest of Mar-a-Lago, well within the tenmile zone that is subject to the most stringent restrictions whenever Trump arrives, the airport has been a veritable ghost town during presidential visits. While a Secret Service spokesman said that officials have met often with executives from the two dozen companies at Lantana, there are no plans to modify the ban. As a result, said Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents the Palm Beach area, the companies have lost more than $720,000 since Trump began making weekend visits as president.

Some retail stores and restaurants are also hurting. Several managers complained that Trump rarely dines outside his own club, and in fact rarely leaves Mar-a-Lago except to play golf. (One Secret Service agent expressed relief that the president is such a homebody.) The owners of over a dozen retail stores told me that his presence had either hurt their business or made little difference. Jeffrey W. Jacobus, who owns the Classic Bookshop on Palm Beach’s South County Road, said that Trump’s visits have had no impact. “People read, no matter where he is,” he said. A bartender at Jean-Georges, an upscale French restaurant where reservations in season are hard to come by, complained one unusually slow Saturday night in February that business was off because his usual patrons were staying home rather than battling traffic.

Marley Herring, president of Worth Avenue, an association of the avenue’s high-end retail owners, noted that some stores were struggling. “We are trying to be creative about how to get people on the street and shopping,” she said. Traffic disruptions due to Trump’s visits, coupled with a shortage of public parking, have hurt.

The town’s main focus, said Laurel Baker, executive director of Palm Beach’s chamber of commerce, is working hard to make “security-related inconveniences slightly less disruptive.” The chamber and other retailers have worked closely with Palm Beach’s police chief, Kirk Blouin, and Palm Beach County’s sheriff, Ric Bradshaw, to do precisely that. Email and text alerts warn residents about road, bridge, and airport closures. And the installation of a helipad at Mar-a-Lago, so that Trump can fly rather than drive 11 minutes to the club from the airport, also minimizes disruption.

Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach developer and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010, is bullish on the Trump effect. Over lunch at Mar-a-Lago, he said that Trump’s presence was helping fuel a construction and development boom long under way in the region, particularly in West Palm Beach, where he has invested millions in luxury hotels, condos, stores, and an innovative nonprofit charter school. “Turn on a TV anywhere in the world and you’ll see Mar-a-Lago,” said Greene, who has not ruled out a run for governor in 2018. “Donald has given lots of visibility to an area that is already booming. The town is buzzing.”

Just across the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm, a five-minute drive over one of three main bridges, two minor-league baseball teams have recently made the town their home; the Norton Museum of Art, with its collection of some 7,000 works of European, American, and Chinese art and photography, is undergoing a $150 million renovation; and West Palm’s Raymond Kravis Center for the Performing Arts has become a regular stop on Broadway hits’ regional tours. In late summer, a private company is scheduled to begin offering high-speed rail service between the Palm Beaches and Miami. On the banks of the Intracoastal, the 25-story Bristol is rising. More than 65 percent of its apartments, with prices starting at $5 million, have already been sold. And all this preceded Trump’s election.

Trump’s presidency has clearly boosted property values. According to figures from the Palm Beach Board of Realtors Multiple Listing Service, while both sales and property values for the roughly 2,000 single-family homes on the island were down by 22 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in 2015, values climbed sharply during the 2016 presidential campaign. Although the number of sales fell by 5 percent last year, their estimated value increased by 15 percent, to a total of $630 million. So far this year, sales and property values have been climbing. From the end of January to mid-May, 34 single-family homes sold at a value of $263.5 million. If current trends hold, sales will finish well above the $600 million projected for the year. “Everyone wants to own a piece of Palm Beach,” said a friend of mine who sells real estate in the area.

Then there’s securing Mar-a-Lago, which Chief Blouin, a transplanted New Yorker, said has been a “learning curve.” Such protection is not cheap. The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch says that Trump’s flights alone to Mar-a-Lago for two weekends in February and March cost taxpayers $1,281,420. And according to federal data, Palm Beach County taxpayers have spent nearly $4 million on Trump’s visits since he was elected president.

Those visits ended for the time being in May, along with the onset of Florida’s summer heat and humidity. Mar-a-Lago and most other clubs closed for the season after Mother’s Day and won’t re-open until the fall. “Awarded the high-security status of the presidency,” Mark Seal recently wrote in Vanity Fair, “the club has indeed become the winter White House that Marjorie Merriweather Post envisioned.” Although Post wanted her home to be a presidential retreat, Mar-a-Lago remains a private club owned by the Trump family.