|By Elinor J. Brecher, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
October 2, 2009 - Bennett Michael Lifter, who built one of Sunny Isles Beach's signature '60s hotels and lobbied tirelessly for casino gambling -- believing it would transform Miami Beach into the world's premier vacation spot -- died Sunday, just shy of his 84th birthday on Oct. 6.
He'd been going to the office daily before leaving Aventura in May for heart-disease treatment in Houston, said son Aaron Lifter, a University of Miami student who helps run Lifter Enterprises.
The firm's one-time crown jewels were the Marco Polo Hotel and Waikiki Resort Motel, but Lifter also developed large residential/commercial tracts near what's now Land Shark Stadium and in the Golden Glades area.
He once was the leading builder of single-family homes in Miami-Dade County, and a mortgage broker.
In 1936, the Lifter family moved from Atlantic City to Miami Beach, where Bennett's father, Daniel, partnered with Eden Roc owner Morris Lansburgh in the Versailles, Sans Souci, Sherry Frontenac, Flamingo, Gulfstream and Deauville hotels.
A University of Miami Law School graduate and decorated World War II combat veteran, Bennett Lifter followed his father's lead after briefly practicing law in the early 1950s.
Together, they planned the Waikiki, at 188th Street and Collins Avenue, in 1953, and the Marco Polo, in 1968, on what was then one of the last major oceanfront properties in North Beach. They envisioned a 10-story, 400-room hotel at 192nd Street and Collins Avenue -- costing $4.5 million.
A charter member of the old Dade County Planning Advisory Board in 1959, Lifter evolved into "the biggest hotelman in Sunny Isles," according to a 1979 Miami Herald story.
Rose Rice, who handled Lifter's advertising for 28 years, said he "wanted to attract people who loved a good time, enjoyed the weather and the beaches."
Expanded to 519 rooms before Lifter sold it to a condo developer in 1994 for $11 million, the Marco Polo once boasted a theater and Vegas-style acts.
A vocal foe of bed taxes -- and anything else that hurt tourism -- Lifter poured a small fortune into pro-gambling campaigns in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
In 1994, he told The Herald: "I'm tired of seeing our hotels and our tourism industry running down. . . . We have done nothing to fend off competition with other towns where casinos are becoming a way of life."
Lifter was "almost insanely passionate about gambling," said Joann Biondi, to whom he gave an arts grant for Miami Beach Memories (Insiders' Guide, 2007). "He felt it would be the salvation of Miami Beach. Years later, after he sold the hotels and had nothing to gain from it, he was still a really big advocate of it."
In the book, the Philadelphia-born Lifter marvels at the Beach's metamorphosis from "offbeat little enclave" to "one of the trendiest neighborhoods in America," in an essay titled "Son of the Beach."
"When I lived in South Beach, I was almost embarrassed to admit it. . . . It was where people without much money came to settle and build new lives," he wrote.
WON BRONZE STAR
After graduating from Miami Beach Senior High School in 1943, Lifter enlisted in the U.S. Army's Specialized Training Program, which sent him to the University of Pennsylvania for premed studies. But he soon deployed to combat zones in Europe and the Pacific with the 86th Infantry's Blackhawk Division, winning the Bronze Star for valor.
After the war, he enrolled at UM, where he earned a law degree in 1950 on the GI Bill.
Married for 23 years to the former Bayla Abrams of Maine, Lifter was the 61-year-old divorced father of three daughters when Aaron was born -- an early in vitro fertilization baby -- in 1987.
And "even though my dad was older, he was 'younger' than all the other dads," a skier and boater who would shoot baskets with his boy, teach him to play football and "was still playing tennis in his late 70s."
Sunny Isles Beach historian Seth Bramson said that Lifter "had a very good reputation" and an "uncanny knack for making the right decision. . . . He was one of the reasons why Sunny Isles Beach was one of the great happening spots."
His father had "mixed feelings" about Sunny Isles Beach's late 1990s mission to upscale from small hotels to condo towers, Aaron said.
Lifter wistfully said as much in a letter to The Herald, three years after Sunny Isles Beach became a city in 1997.
"Who is to say which would have been better for the people and the place, condominium high-rises, with little continuing commercial benefit . . . or beautiful hotels generating a wonderful world of tourism . . . producing a multitude of jobs and rippling economic benefits for all."
In addition to his wife and son, Lifter is survived by daughters Nancy Wolin, Susan Zeitlin and Hilary Kates, and sister Adele Rubin, all of Miami-Dade County.
A funeral was held.
To see more of The Miami Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.
Copyright (c) 2009, The Miami Herald
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email email@example.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.