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Magic City Ambassador George Neary

Magic City Ambassador George Neary

George Neary sparkles. Light beams out in all directions from his hat, jacket and most other fashion he adorns when out and about as the Associate Vice President of Cultural Tourism and LGBT Marketing for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, commonly referred to as the GMCVB. He was the first, and has remained in that position for 20 years sharing his love of a diverse and tropical Miami with the world through trade show and travel. Having just hit the 70 year mark, and thinking about retirement for the first time, also fast approaching is the day when he will leave some very big shoes to fill at The Bureau.

Nearly seven decades ago, and long before balmy breezes were in his orbit, a soon-to-glitter George Neary was born in Hartford, CT to a Catholic family and grew up in a Catholic community. His love of history became apparent at a young age when he noticed family and friends moving away from beautiful old homes in the city for more modern structures in the suburbs.

“I’d think, ‘It’s all so fake!’ George says. “Then I’d point to an older home and all of its craftsmanship, but I’d hear, ‘Old homes are so much more work!’ I’d say the difference is real vs. fake. I think people realize what that means once they think about it.”

In high school, he was a student journalist for the city’s daily newspaper, The Hartford Courant; and was president of the drama club for three years.

“I was mad all the funding would go to the sports department, so the drama club was determined to get the school’s attention and we did it by getting to school very early and hanging our play’s backdrop in the cafeteria. By the time school opened, everyone was talking about it. Marketing and promotion have always come easy to me, I guess.”

He was a history major at Saint Anselm in New Hampshire and after graduation he searched high and low for a teaching job. “I finally found work in Joplin, Mo. where I was a minority for the first time. It was eye opening to see Baptists and others running the show. I suddenly saw and understood why various organizations were needed in order to help all kinds of groups, like the NAACP, Lions Club, Elks Club. Because people have a need to come together and be with what is familiar, and I recognized the value.”

George was introduced to the tropics when he was a Peace Corps volunteer, serving in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines from 1973-75. He was then back in cold weather working in New York for 20 years for AFS International, an intercultural student exchange program.

An opportunity presented by a Peace Corps buddy invited George to move to Miami Beach in 1991 to manage and live in a nine-unit building on Pinetree Drive and 25th Street. Soon after his arrival, he walked over to the Bass Museum and signed up to volunteer as a docent. Within months he was volunteering for the Miami Design Preservation League, which was created to protect and preserve the historic art deco district with buildings constructed from 1928-1943. He quickly rose to become director when Nancy Liebman left and became a Miami Beach city commissioner. George’s first big project was Art Deco Weekend in 1992, which began a steady stream of events that continues bringing international tourism to Miami Beach. There were many successes working with Michael Kinerk and Matti Bower, long time chairs overseeing eight Art Deco Weekends, and creating more historic districts for Miami Beach.

“I arrived on the MDPL scene just as the art deco district got its historic designation, so I had no baggage or bad history with developers and I could base relationships on meeting them for the first time. There was real hatred on both sides and the preservationists were speechless at seeing that I could get along with people like Abe Resnick, one of the worst of the developers. But he eventually ‘got it’ and even got up and spoke at a conference on preservation and said, ‘I couldn’t do the impossible because I couldn’t see the invisible. I only saw land value, and the building was in the way. I didn’t understand the value of the building.’ People were shocked he had a turnaround moment like that.”

Once MDPL was able to get the city of Miami Beach to see the significance and value of its historic buildings, laws were put in place to protect them from demolition.

“Now, any building in the protected district that gets knocked down has to be put back up the same way. So developers now know that can’t happen. It will cost more money. There are only a couple of Mediterranean Revival buildings on Ocean Drive; most are Art Deco. One of them was the last building I fought, the Edgewater. No one realized it had a 7-foot plastic façade in front, which looked awful. We convinced them to take it off before demolishing it and underneath they saw this beautiful building and it was saved.

“On Lincoln Road, most people don’t know, in the 1950s aluminum was all the rage and all the storefronts were covered with it. Even doors and windows were covered to make them look more modern. The way we knew this was from old Miami Beach postcards. Buildings that were torn down had to be put back up the same way it was originally. MDPL’s founder, Barbara Capitman had a book of postcards for every building and could go around and see if they were still standing or had been torn down, and if they were gone they had to be put up exactly the same way.”

In 1998 the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor’s Bureau hired George to oversee the city’s heritage and cultural tourism efforts, a new position. The first thing he arranged on his first day was to gather a meeting of all the museum directors for a lunch at the history museum.

“They all knew of each other but had never met face-to-face. It was an informal gathering where directors each told a story about their worst experience. It broke the ice and set the stage for a friendly working relationship among the city’s museums.

He also oversees the Bureau’s gay and lesbian marketing efforts to promote Miami as the premier LGBTQ destination. George serves on the Board of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and The Gay Pride Committee (which plans the largest LGBT event in Miami-Dade, attracting more than 80,000 attendees this past year). He was a founding board member of then-Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower’s LGBT business committee for two years. He was awarded the President’s award from the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the organization’s highest award. He has also been a member of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce since 1993 and helped developed The Museum Mile, a Chamber/Bureau cultural program involving Miami Beach’s five museums.

George Neary is a historian, preservationist, marketer and promoter, ingredients for a first-rate ambassador of the Magic City. Asked if he had any final remarks about his work in historic preservation, he said he ends most of his talks with this: “We’ve done what we could. Now it’s up to you.”

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