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  • Lyons' church group had hotel dream

    By MIKE WILSON

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 11, 1997


    FORT LAUDERDALE -- It was going to be Henry Lyons' enduring achievement, a towering monument to his vision and boldness: a $61-million hotel with 500 guest rooms, a lap pool, a boardwalk and spectacular views of the Intracoastal Waterway.

    The National Baptist Convention USA was going to build a Hilton. 3-D rendering


    The proposed hotel, shown in this 3-D rendering, would have 500 guest rooms and spectacular views.
    (Photo from Times Files)

    The church group, of which Lyons is president, planned to erect the hotel next to the Broward County Convention Center. The place would host the usual run of conventioneers and, Lyons promised, a steady flow of prayerful National Baptists.

    The napkins would say Hilton, but that would just be the management company. The profits would go to Lyons' National Baptist Convention.

    "Hilton/NBC will bring more than just a hotel," according to the church group's September 1996 proposal to the Broward County Commission. "We bring community, family-oriented involvement, significant economic impact and a model for cultural unity."

    What the convention actually brought to Fort Lauderdale was overblown promises, a dubious wheeler-dealer and a disinclination to pay its debts. The Miami architect who designed the hotel says Lyons' organization stiffed him for $83,000. He is suing to get his money.

    "I thought they were all smoke and mirrors myself," Broward County Commission Chairman John Rodstrom said.

    The church group almost won the hotel contract anyway. And it still stands a chance to be a part-owner.

    Why did Lyons -- now dogged by reports of questionable financial dealings and eyebrow-raising relationships with women -- want to build a luxury hotel? And why did Broward officials think he could pull it off? The answers lie in Fort Lauderdale's feverish courting of tourists, the odd politics of Broward County and the ambitions of the Rev. Henry James Lyons.

    In March 1996, the Broward government put out the word that it wanted someone -- preferably a minority developer -- to build a first-class hotel on 4.4 acres of public land near Fort Lauderdale's international airport. Whoever got the contract would lease the land from the county.

    Soon, Miami lawyer W. Reeder Glass, of Holland & Knight, began assembling a team to go after the contract. Among his recruits were the Hilton Hotels Corporation, Hardin Construction Group of Atlanta and Miami architecture and design firm Bermello, Ajamil & Partners.

    Then Lyons and the National Baptist Convention got involved. It is not clear how it happened. Neither Lyons nor his attorney, Grady Irvin, responded to requests for interviews. Said Glass, the Miami lawyer: "I really don't think I need to talk too much about this."

    The Baptist group quickly became the lead developer. It formed a corporation called NBC Holdings, which it described in its first proposal as "an affiliate" of the church group. That proposal, submitted in June 1996, said the development group would contribute $14.5-million in equity to the $61.5-million deal. It would finance the rest of the construction costs with loans.

    The National Baptist Convention would own 95 percent of the hotel, with the other partners sharing the remaining 5 percent.

    The project would be expensive, but worth it: The church group estimated that the hotel would generate a $4-million profit the first year, steadily growing to almost $8-million in its 10th year.

    There was a problem: The county wasn't sure the convention had any money. "NBC has not provided demonstration of their ability to fund their equity commitment," wrote the county's consulting firm, Arthur Andersen.

    Money wasn't the only question mark. NBC Holdings' front man was Julius V. Jackson, a Miami businessman with a history of leaving debts unpaid and phone calls unreturned. He did not respond to calls or faxes seeking an interview for this article.

    Jackson, 50, is a man of many business cards. Years ago, he was the sole U.S. distributor for a Dutch manufacturer of collapsible parking barriers. People who owned parking spaces could use the barriers to block off their spots while they were gone. The product never caught on.

    Jackson has since billed himself as a business consultant, real estate developer and community activist.

    What he clearly does well is make friends. In the mid-1980s, according to the Miami Herald, Jackson received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business contracts from people who needed the vote of Metro-Dade Commissioner Barbara Carey, Jackson's close friend.

    For example, late Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie gave Jackson a consulting contract at the same time that Carey cast the vote that allowed Robbie to build a new football stadium.

    Even with all that work, Jackson had money problems. In 1993 he filed for bankruptcy, saying he owed $2.1-million to banks, credit card companies and others. Among his creditors was Miami businessman Walter Revell, who guaranteed a bank loan for Jackson and wound up paying when Jackson didn't.

    Revell never got the $175,000 Jackson owed him, but he isn't angry.

    "I've never known anybody who worked any harder than Julius. He's exceptionally bright. I believe he's honest. He just got overextended," Revell says.

    In August 1996, while serving as president of NBC Holdings Inc., Jackson signed a contract promising to pay architect Willy Bermello $83,000 for his design work on the hotel project. Bermello didn't know anything about Jackson's finances when he made that deal.

    He would later wish he had.

    Bermello also occasionally dealt with Frederick T. Demps, a Palatka preacher who identified himself as CEO of National Baptist Holdings. Demps worked closely with Lyons when Lyons ran the Florida General Baptist Convention. Lyons rarely got involved in the hotel deal. He didn't need to, Bermello said.

    "Dr. Demps was kind of the alter ego of Dr. Lyons. If I was speaking to Dr. Demps, I was speaking to Dr. Lyons," he said.

    Last September, the development group submitted a second proposal to Broward County. Lyons was among the people who spoke at the presentation. This time, the National Baptist Convention said it would be the sole owner of the hotel, whose cost it now estimated at $61-million. The convention planned to get $41-million in construction loans.

    What about the rest of the money?

    "NBC has $20-million available to be used in this project," the proposal said.

    Rodstrom, the county commission chairman who served on the selection committee, asked the convention to produce a financial statement audited by a Big Six accounting firm. But it never did.

    Architect Bermello didn't understand why the church group didn't just show Rodstrom the money.

    "They were embarrassing themselves and embarrassing everyone else by not revealing the resources they say they have," he said.

    Lyons might not have had cash, but he had something almost as valuable to the county: people. Each year, the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention holds as many as 20 meetings and conventions around the country. According to the proposal, those meetings draw "2,500 to 80,000 delegates."

    If his organization got the hotel contract, Lyons said, he would schedule many of those meetings in Fort Lauderdale. "(We have) the ability to guarantee 200,000 room nights from NBC delegates, resulting in over $40-million in revenues" to the area, the proposal said.

    Lyons reiterated this promise in a letter faxed from his office to Broward tourism officials. "If the Hilton/NBC Hotel Associates are successful in signing a contract to build and operate the Hotel, our organization will immediately be available to negotiate . . . the scheduling of our Conventions at the facility."

    Included in the fax was a similar promise from E. Edward Jones, president of the National Baptist Convention of America Inc., a black church group that boasts 3.5-million members. Jones' letter said his group holds two meetings of more than 20,000 people each year.

    But in an interview, Jones said he didn't write the letter. He said he didn't even know Lyons was trying to build a hotel in Fort Lauderdale.

    Still, Lyons' promise to fill the hotel with Baptists was persuasive to some on the selection committee.

    The National Baptist Convention's most vocal supporter was Sylvia Poitier, the only African-American on the county commission. "They had the best offer. They could bring not just their people, they could bring any African-American group," she said.

    Even though the convention offered no proof that it had the means to build the hotel, Poitier said she was "thoroughly convinced" that it did.

    Poitier attended Baptist churches for 20 years, but said her former religious affiliation had nothing to do with her support of the convention.

    Then there was the talk about her friendship with Julius Jackson, the front man for NBC Holdings. Poitier describes herself as "62 and single. Need a husband." At one point when Jackson was representing the church group before the county, he and Poitier showed up together at a fund-raiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Broward County.

    "We went as acquaintances," Poitier said.

    Another time, she and Jackson were seen holding hands at a reading in Broward by poet Maya Angelou.

    "The man helped me up the steps," she said. She pointed out that Jackson was no longer working on the hotel deal by that time. And she said she never had a romantic relationship with him.

    "Wasn't one then, is none now," she said. "But nobody can tell me who to talk to, who to hold hands with, and when to hold it. I passed that age. I'm single, but even if I was married, I'd still hold whoever's hand I want to."

    Whatever Poitier's feelings about Jackson, he couldn't close the hotel deal because Lyons' organization never came up with the money. Late last year, Jackson recruited a powerful new partner: R. Donahue Peebles, a Washington developer who had just struck a deal to build a hotel in Miami Beach.

    Peebles came up with a plan to build a $53-million Crowne Plaza hotel. Crowne Plaza, a division of Holiday Inn Worldwide, promised to kick in a little more than $7-million, and Miami's Capital Bank said it would provide a $43-million construction loan.

    The other $2.3-million would come from the National Baptist Convention, which would own 25 percent of the hotel. Peebles promised to come up with that money if the convention couldn't. In January, Lyons sent a letter reiterating his promise to use 200,000 room nights a year, many of them during the slow summer months.

    Jackson was to be richly rewarded for bringing Peebles into the deal. If the hotel was built, he would receive a $500,000 "developer's fee." But then somebody faxed his bankruptcy file to County Commissioner Lori Parrish, who announced that she would not do business with him anymore. So Peebles dumped him.

    In February, Broward commissioners voted 7-0 to let Peebles move forward with the project. The commission could sign a letter of intent with him as early as this week.

    Bermello, whose firm drew the plans and created the proposal for the Hilton project, is out of the deal now. He sued NBC Holdings and the National Baptist Convention when he was not paid the $83,000.

    "They didn't even answer the lawsuit," said Bermello's attorney, Ralph Patino. He said he will seek a default judgment.

    Bermello said he is disappointed -- but not surprised -- that Lyons' organization has refused to pay its debts.

    "It was obvious that we were dealing with people who were out of their league in terms of doing a major business deal," he said.

    -- Information the Miami Herald, Times researcher John Martin and Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin was used in this report.

      ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.