BY JOEY FLECHAS
The wet spinning blade cut clean through the porcelain tile as Roberto Sanabria guided the pieces slowly through the saw.
“I’m cutting samples,” he said as he held a piece of floor tile that will eventually find its way into a shopper’s hands. He works at Casa Linda Tile and Marble, at 3435 NW 79th Ave., which is one of many businesses selling tile, marble, kitchen cabinets and other home decor items just off the Palmetto Expressway in Doral.
Anyone passing Doral on the Palmetto sees the flurry of signs for businesses that make up a district ready to brand itself as the next design destination in Miami-Dade.
The roughly one-square mile swath wants to be known as the Doral Decor District and has more than 100 interior decor businesses that are organizing to promote themselves, fix their roads and boost interest in a community of merchants that keeps growing. The district stretches from 87th Avenue east to the Palmetto and from 36th Street south to 25th Street.
About 30 of the businesses have joined a merchants association that formed last year to bring owners together to steer the district into the future. The association has played a crucial role in showing city leaders the district is ready to forge its own identity.
“I see a lot more involvement among the owners,” said Doral Councilwoman Christi Fraga, who is the council’s liaison to the city’s steering committee on the decor district. “It’s a great place to be and have a business.”
Mercedes Villar, president of the association, said businesses have settled in a cluster because they benefit from the proximity. On Saturdays, customers often go door to door, comparing prices to find the best deal.
“It’s kind of like the car business,” said Mercedes Villar, who is vice president of specialty building and finish products import company Impec. “They all do better together than apart.”
In the 1980s, the area had the nickname “Little Beirut” because businesses had to constantly battle for customers. Nowadays, the approach is evolving. Some owners are turning to each other to consider collaborating — particularly where products can compliment each other.
Stephen Musolino Jr., president of Casa Linda and vice president of the merchants association, recently visited Aftemar Home Gallery Kitchen and Baths at 7890 NW 29th St. to chat with management about a future association event.
Gonzalo Flores, president of Aftemar, chatted with Musolino about possibly displaying each other’s products in their showrooms.
“I don’t have what you have,” Gonzalo said, as he stood among different kitchen displays with granite countertops and colored cabinets. “And you don’t have what I have.”
Musolino, who suggested that one-stop shopping could be a customer-friendly strategy for businesses in the district, agreed and seemed interested.
“I want to build a relationship,” he said.
Agustin Fernandez, founder of Aftemar, said many of those weekend pedestrian customers would benefit from businesses referring to each other.
“Many people come in only looking for tile and not for kitchen cabinets,” he said.
As local proprietors come together, there is still a major obstacle to growth.
Many of the roads that branch off 79th Avenue are in bad shape and flood easily. Even light rain floods some of the streets, and stronger storms can cause waters to rise so much that some shops have to close.
It’s a problem for which owners have long sought a solution because the roads are private and out of the city’s hands. But a fix may be on the horizon.
Last year, the district held a street fair where, along with food and children’s activities, companies displayed their home decor products. Instead of using the $40,000 the city budgeted this year for another street fair, the association is commissioning a report to determine what needs to be done about the roads and drainage.
Once that’s done, property owners in the area will have the option to tax themselves to pay for the necessary improvements.
“Then we have to do a special taxing district,” Fraga said. “And we have to have a 100 percent buy-in with all the property owners in the area to do that.”
The core of the district — the cluster of businesses from 79th Avenue east to the Palmetto — could see infrastructure improvements. According to the master plan laid out by the city, the whole district includes sections east of the Carnival Cruise Lines building on 87th Avenue, where mixed-use developments have already broken ground.
With residential and retail developments bringing future residents and visitors to the area, business owners like, Rick Cajigas, owner of USA Tile and Marble at 3325 NW 79th Avenue, are looking forward to even more growth.
“I’m a real estate owner in the area,” he said. “It’d be good for property values.”
He opened his store in 1991 and remembers when 79th Avenue was a two-lane road with dirt on the shoulders.
“Things have changed,” he said with a chuckle.
Musolino entered the tile business when he followed in his father’s footsteps. Stephen Musolino Sr., an Italian immigrant, moved from New York City to Miami in 1973 and brought all of his contacts in the Italian tile trade with him.
The younger Musolino has worked for his father for 30 years, and Casa Linda opened in 1986 during the “Little Beirut” days.
“The visibility from the 826 was important,” he said. “There was plenty of business for everyone.”
Now, the city prepares to erect two monuments south of 36th Street, one on each side of the street, to mark the entrance into the the district. Two more will go up near the 25th Street entrance after other nearby construction is finished.
Councilwoman Ana Maria Rodrigruez said the owners and city will keep working to bring the area the recognition it deserves.
“We really want to be a designated area that’s known at local, county, and hopefully at a national level,” she said.
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/11/11/3746772/doral-tile-and-marble-dealers.html#storylink=cpy