Politics Aside

Two men walk into a bar. In this case, the characters are Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler and Riverside Market founder Julian Siegel, who chat about the future of the city over drinks.

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Mayor Jack Seiler (left) has a beer with Riverside Market’s Julian Siegel.

By Buddy Nevins
Portrait by Eduardo Schneider

Jack Seiler and Julian Siegel are the perfect people to talk about Fort Lauderdale’s new role as a trendy destination to live, work and party. Seiler is the Fort Lauderdale mayor credited with helping reshape the city into what it is today. He is due to leave office in March because of term limits, ending a chapter in Fort Lauderdale’s public eye.

Siegel is a pioneer of the craft beer movement in Fort Lauderdale. He and his wife, Lisa, opened the fun and funky Riverside Market roughly a decade ago, stocking it with more than two dozen draft beers and hundreds of bottled or canned brews. They have since opened two additional locations: Riverside Market South, where the guys recently sat down for this interview, and Riverside Market Plantation.

Seiler and Siegel are friends and longtime Fort Lauderdale residents who staked their livelihoods on turning the city into a place to be remembered for more than just spring break antics. While drinking beer and snacking on pepperoni pizza, the two discuss everything from the controversial regulation of the public feeding of the homeless to the Tortuga Music Festival to whether Seiler will consider running for a statewide office.

Siegel: I remember us meeting seven years ago at the Run with the Mayor event.

Seiler: We probably should have called it Walk with the Mayor. The idea for this event started because I wanted bring the neighbors and first responders together. I’d bring the police chief, the fire chief and seven or eight staff members. It was an attempt to build a sense of community. We walked, and then we would sit and talk about the neighborhood, including what was needed and how we could help. I always wanted these talks to occur at local establishments—never chains. So that’s how I ended up at Riverside Market and met you, Julian… And I’ve patronized the Riverside Market ever since. It’s cool because it’s in the Riverside Park neighborhood, which would be special and popular if it were anywhere in America. It’s trendy and simple. One of my goals was to preserve and build on great neighborhoods like Riverside Park.

In my first State of the City address nearly nine years ago, I said we must leave no neighborhood behind. I always knew Fort Lauderdale is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood. We like to use the word “neighbors” in Fort Lauderdale. We decided years ago that people are not simply citizens or residents; they are neighbors. We wanted to treat people like good neighbors in City Hall. Everybody who lives in the community is a neighbor. So we started using that term for the people who live here.

Siegel: How has the city changed in the nearly nine years you’ve presided over it?

Seiler: Look around this restaurant. Look at all the young people. In the past, they would move somewhere else, and now younger people are moving here. A big part of that is we now have more diversity from an age standpoint, a socio-economic standpoint, a racial standpoint and a sexual orientation standpoint. You are seeing every age, from young to old—there are three generations at the table next to us right now. There are Hispanics, African-Americans and people of all faiths in Fort Lauderdale.

That diversity has enriched the city and has made us trendy. That’s why we rank so high on the national livability charts now. It’s a city for everybody. There has also been a giant cultural expansion with music, nightlife and entertainment. We even brought back community events like the St. Patrick’s
Day parade.

Siegel: It’s very different now, isn’t it? My family moved here from New York in the ’70s. Everybody I saw was 50 or 60 years old, and I was 8. My friends were the grandchildren of everybody living around us. I had seasonal friendships, when kids came to visit their grandparents down here around Easter, summer and Christmas.

As a resident, I enjoy spending time with my family at events. I work as hard as I can, but on the weekends, I don’t want to miss out on my boys growing up. They are 13 and almost 15. I want a place that has things for me to do with my kids.

Seiler: Before 2009, we didn’t have the Great American Beach Party or the Tortuga Music Festival. Riverwalk now has hundreds of activities a year. It used to have about 10.

Siegel: Let’s talk about development, which was one of your goals. When you look at the infancy of development years ago, there were maybe two or three mid-rises in Flagler Village. Now there is new space downtown and in Flagler Village. People are living there and eating and drinking just downstairs. We’ve really become a pedestrian, skateboard and Uber community. It’s amazing.

Seiler: We said we needed a 24/7 community downtown, and we’ve achieved that. We always said we needed more walking opportunities in the community. We are not quite there yet because we need more sidewalks and canopies. But Riverwalk is a tremendous asset. It was faltering for a while, and now it’s back.

Siegel: Riverwalk is wonderful. Every summer, I lose 40 pounds with all the walking we end up doing. I push away the beer and the pizza, and go to egg whites and spinach during those days.

Seiler: I can’t be thinking of dieting right now, Julian. Especially when you keep bringing all this food from your kitchen!

Siegel: Thanks, Mayor. On another note, do you remember the most negative series of events during your terms?

Seiler: Probably the issue with the homeless population.

Siegel: That’s 100 percent it. It was crazy.

Seiler: It got people talking more than anything else during the nearly nine years I’ve been in office. Most people said, “Thank God you did what we wanted done for 15 years.”

Siegel: Some people were vehemently against it. I posted on our Facebook page saying, “Let’s just follow the rules. It’s sanitary.” Seven hundred people wrote they hated me. They threatened to boycott Riverside Market. All I was doing was supporting the mayor and the city’s decision.

Seiler: There was certainly opposition. I had protestors at my house and police horses on my lawn. Neighborhood associations liked it. They said, “Mayor, we are with you.”

Siegel: What’s it like being the mayor?

Seiler: It’s been a really fun ride… Everybody knows who their mayor is. And you meet everybody. I’ll give you an idea of my schedule today: I was the speaker at the Chamber of Commerce downtown; at noon I spoke to a commercial Realtors group; then I did the Orange Bowl Committee meeting; then I opened the St. Jerome Catholic School Fall Festival; from there, I went to kick off a Covenant House Florida Executive Sleep Out fundraiser on the Riverwalk; then I addressed the U.S. Coast Guard Foundation; and then I walked in here at 8 p.m.

This has been the most enjoyable, rewarding job I’ve ever had. For example, when I was at St. Jerome’s fall festival, 5-year-olds knew who I was. They were so excited to say, “Mom, that’s the mayor.”

Next year will be my 25th year in public office, and I just love this job. Even with controversies, there are positives. Everybody said, “You must be so upset by all the controversy with the homeless.” I actually felt better. People ended up paying attention to the homeless. From all that controversy, all of a sudden the Broward Partnership for the Homeless got more support.

Siegel: It was controversial, though.

Seiler: I’ll tell you how controversial. One day I got a text from my son, Preston, asking if I was all right. I never get texts from my son, who’s at Villanova University, out of the blue. So I started thinking maybe he’s got a problem: Is it a girl? Did he get in trouble in school? So I answered: “I’m fine. Why do you ask?” He texted again: “What about the horses?” I was at work and didn’t know anything about horses.

It turned out that my son and his team were watching TV in the Villanova locker room and saw the homeless demonstrating outside our home and the police horses on the lawn. The news of this reached all the way up to Preston in Pennsylvania! That’s how widespread the coverage was. But at the end of the day, it all worked out.

Siegel: What did you want to finish while in office but won’t get the chance to?

Seiler: I really wanted the Lockhart Stadium project finished—and not just the stadium renovation and the water park. I really wanted the four fields out there.

We have a shortage of fields for our youth. We need soccer fields and other kinds of fields. In the end, we didn’t do fields elsewhere because we were waiting for that Lockhart Stadium project. The second project I wanted to have finished would be the International Swimming Hall of Fame aquatic center.

Siegel: What’s happening with that?

Seiler: It’s getting done. It’s just not going to get done while I’m mayor. I would have loved to have it finished three or four years ago and have events while I was still around as mayor. The swimming center is synonymous with Fort Lauderdale. It’s an amazing facility.

Siegel: What’s next for you?

Seiler: I haven’t ruled out anything, not even doing something statewide. I just don’t want to rush into anything. I’ll definitely stay involved in this city. I have two of my four kids back here. This is our home. I spent all of this time helping to make Fort Lauderdale a city everybody would want to come back to. After high school and college, people would go to places like Atlanta, New York, Boston or Nashville. All of a sudden, Fort Lauderdale is being mentioned in the same breath as Austin among millennials. They are looking at us and saying, “Great music scene, great food, great bars.” That’s going to continue.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 Issue.

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