JACMEL, Haiti –
South Beach nightclub promoter and entrepreneur Michael Capponi is standing in the soon-to-be inaugurated lobby of his latest luxury development.
Men are hammering away to restore an historic old building to its former glory. Capponi, 39, is holding forth about the amazing vibe the place has, comparing the semi-derelict building to Ernest Hemingway’s famous old Key West residence, which is a popular tourist museum.
“Visitors will enter here,” he says, treading over rubble-strewn debris. “We’re keeping it very traditional-Caribbean style; brick built, open to the outside, no air-conditioning.”
Capponi, who made his name in the early 90s on SoBe with a string of nightclubs, is in his element. Famous for promoting venues such as Warsaw, Amnesia, B.E.D. and LIV, he knows ‘the secret sauce,’ as he calls it – ambience, energy, big name people – required to create a new ‘in’ scene.
Only this isn’t SoBe, and Capponi isn’t standing in any old derelict building. This is a derelict building in one of the most derelict countries in the world: Haiti. What was he thinking!
That’s not all. This is no hedonistic SoBe project to create a club space for a few hundred people to drink and dance all night long. Capponi’s new mission involves fixing up a whole city – if not the entire country.
This daunting undertaking might sound wildly ambitious, not to say foolhardy. But for this 39-year-old reformed heroin addict the humanitarian challenge is too compelling to ignore.
“I think we can revitalize this country completely and make it a place people want to visit,” he says. “It’s doable.”
Until last year Capponi had never set foot in Haiti. An avid surfer, he was more familiar with the popular resorts next door in the Dominican Republic, where he liked to go for the waves.
But on Jan. 17, 2010, five days after a devastating earthquake hit southern Haiti, killing an estimated 250,000 people, he found himself on a private jet with a relief team he assembled of doctors and a dozen Miami Beach firemen. It wasn’t a new role for Capponi, who had long been involved in humanitarian causes.
The experience marked him for life. Despite the shocking injuries and gaping, maggot-invested wounds he helped clean, he fell in love with Haiti, and its people.
Capponi has been back 32 times since that visit. At first it was as just one of the many relief workers. But that soon evolved into a deeper commitment. He bought 700 tents and built a camp for 3,000 homeless earthquake victims in the capital Port-au-Prince, paid for by several fundraisers Capponi organized with the United Way of Miami-Dade, of which he is a board member.
Now he has gone one step further. Frustrated by the slow pace of the international recovery effort and his desire to resettle the tent city dwellers, Capponi has launched a tourism redevelopment project in Jacmel, a quaint town on the south coast known for its local artists and papier-maché handicrafts.
The idea was born last December when he was invited to visit Jacmel by actress Maria Bello, and her friend, venture capitalist Reza Bundy. Capponi was in a quandary. His support for the tent city was dragging on far longer than he had planned. But he couldn’t abandon the families who had come to depend on him so heavily.
Single, with no children of his own, Capponi had grown attached to the camp kids who clung to him every time he visited shouting his name ‘Miko! Miko!’
“I thought I was going to be out of there in six months and the international community would take over,” he says. “But how do you walk away?” Capponi had barely set foot in Jacmel before he realized what his next move would be. The town, with a population of about 60,000, has produced some of Haiti’s best-known painters, writers and poets. Its distinctive French colonial architecture and rich cultural scene give it an Old World charm that makes it stand out from the rest of the country. In fact, Jacmel’s urban and architectural design is credited with having influenced New Orleans’ French Quarter.
He saw the potential right away, and immediately began creating a new vision for the historic downtown district. In no time at all he had teamed up with several local Haitian business leaders, eager to see the town reborn.
Within weeks Capponi had architectural plans ready, as well as a rendering of how the new Jacmel might look. Next he began bringing families from his tent camp in Port-au-Prince to a new camp in Jacmel financed by the United Way and the Miami-Dade County League of Cities.