Wynwood economy springs to life despite pandemic

Murals like this one, painted in 2014, have helped bring Wynwood back, (Photo by Joan Tarragó via Wikimedia Commons)

“I’m so thankful to be outside for a change!” said Christian Perez, an excited 24-year-old masked Midtown resident, as he walked to meet friends for lunch at Buya, a restaurant in Wynwood. “It’s refreshing to see the environment rejuvenated!”

Restaurants like Buya, at 250 NW 24th St., were forced to close and reopen several times this past summer to accommodate COVID-19 guidelines. Yet co-owner Jeff Grosser figured out how to serve patrons once outdoor seating was permitted.

“Our goal was never to open up in the street or, you know, outside during the rainy season and the heat,” said Mr. Grosser. “We fancy ourselves as an indoor venue, but after waiting around for a couple of weeks, we realized we had to just go. We didn’t want to sit around in an empty restaurant.”

Buya is one of many Wynwood restaurants that have surged back to life recently. The neighborhood’s streets were never empty until the pandemic hit last spring.  Now they are filling back up in phases. As plans to make the neighborhood greener and more diversified take shape, business owners look ahead to a brighter future.

Miami Commissioners voted unanimously Oct. 22 to approve a new Wynwood Streetscape Master Plan that promotes growth with a focus on sustainability, mobility, safety and social connectivity for the 50 city-block arts district.

“It’s a process that will be in phases,” said Albert Garcia, chairman and co-founder of the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID). “You’re going to see new crosswalks, wider sidewalks, canopies and additional trees coming into the neighborhood, just to list a few of our plans.”

The neighborhood’s revitalization efforts over the past decade have resulted in over 7,500 new jobs, over 5 million annual visitors and more than $1.5 billion in local investment and spending, according to the improvement district.

“We’re feeling very confident, cautiously optimistic going into the December and January season, which historically is our high season,” said Mr. Garcia.“We have a lot of plans and programs that we’re working on to continue to encourage people to rediscover Wynwood.”

Businesses have been hit hard by COVID-19 but are now looking at a brighter future. Video production at the studio/editing facility Florida Film House at 570 NW 26th St. recently resumed after a pause.

Marco Molinet, known as “Marco Mall,” founded the operation 11 years ago with business partner Blademil “Bla G” Grullon.

Mr. Molinet said the pandemic made life difficult. “We found a way to adapt and move forward, making sure everybody’s checked, everything is constantly sanitized, keeping people separated and moving things around … slows us down a little bit.”

The Film House couldn’t have more than 10 people on set at the very beginning of the pandemic.

And it couldn’t arrange a federal loan, so things became difficult. “In June, we started doing small productions that we were, uh, sort of social distancing with the mask,” Mr. Molinet said. “This allowed us to stay afloat.”

They were set to work on a film with actor Romeo Miller about a young man trying to escape his dangerous living situation by performing as a beatboxer. The film was to be called “Monstah.”

“A $300,000 budget grew to about $360,000 due to some of the COVID-19 restrictions,” Mr. Molinet said. “We are set to start filming the first quarter of 2021.”

In August, the company held the Urban Film Festival, which is normally attended by about 3,000 patrons. Transformed into a virtual event this year, it drew over 11,000 people worldwide.

“1st Take is more important than ever,” Mr. Molinet said. “The kids are able to tell their own stories and use their own voice. It is a beautiful thing.”

Down the street at Buya, where a masked Christian Perez walked to meet friends, there is also new life. The restaurant’s name means “small fire.” It first opened in 2016 in St. Petersburg, Florida where it received massive praise and began its expansion overseas to Berlin and Potsdam, Germany.

Mr. Grosser first opened the Miami location on Aug, 18. It missed the worst of pandemic closures.

“This year originally we were scheduled to open in early July but…. we actually had to pull the plug on everything because we don’t have a patio,” he said. “We had to lay off our staff and basically throw away everything in our cooler.”

A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan helped by $75,000, much of which went to the staff of 25 workers.

“We put in the AstroTurf, the plywood, the chairs, the tents and the lights and created an outdoor space because we never had a patio,” Mr. Grosser said.

Ninety percent of the staff has returned and sales have been up by 30% from October. With more foot traffic and people struggling to find parking, Mr. Grosser is optimistic.

“Funny, in years past, if you told somebody they had to sit outside to eat in August, they would be huffing and puffing,” Mr. Grosser said. “Now they don’t care, you know? They just want to hang out with friends and break bread.”

Racquel Lewis is a Miami native who enjoys botany, comedy, theatre, and culinary arts. She is currently an assistant editor at South Florida Media Network while also attending Florida International University as a Broadcast Media major. Her goals are to have her own show and to get an Emmy.