Publication Date: Wednesday, July 11, 2001
Published on Coralsprings.com by permission
Susan is 25 minutes into red highlights at the Pink Ponytail Unisex Hair Studio in Coral Springs when a receptionist rather inconveniently mentions that the fire department is outside, insisting everyone evacuate the premises immediately on account of the propane hose that ruptured while fueling tanks at Dan Marino’s Town Tavern next door.Nonplussed, Susan – her last name has been omitted to conceal beauty secrets – grabs her personal effects and vacates the salon, her hair still deep in transition. This is approximately when she decides to call Howard Melamed.
Melamed is down the road a short distance, inside his third-floor office above Union Planters Bank, when his wife, Barbara, knocks on the door to tell him about the phone call. A family friend, Susan has never phoned in a tip before, so Melamed, a developer by trade who currently is working on some projects in Miami-Dade County, interrupts his conversation to see what’s up.
“Propane?” he says, amused by the scenario. “Does it smell like shit? OK … and … OK … yeah … yeah … so … but no fire?”
No fire, but Melamed, an engaging, fast-talking 45-year-old former civil engineer from Montreal, is not above blowing a little smoke.
In fact, it might be considered one of the primary sources of amusement for a man who purchased the rights to the Web site CoralSprings.com about 15 months ago and has single-handedly grown it from an inactive domain name to a vocal conduit for his various interests and sometimes-unpopular political views.
“I hear it’s very controversial,” says Commissioner Maureen Berk, who then admits she’s never actually browsed the site. That’s all Melamed needs to hear. “I don’t think she even knows how to use the computer,” he says. “When she says she’s never been on the site, trust me when I tell you, the chances are she’s not even on the computer.”
The personal attack is a rare one for the good-natured Melamed, who prefers to save his poison darts for an intact commission, which he accuses of conducting meetings like a communist regime. “The dictator says, ‘This is good,’ then everybody below, in that whole organization, pushes it.”
“The flow of information I think is great for the city,” Commissioner Rhonda Calhoun says. “But some of the information he’s putting out there is not as accurate. He doesn’t call to ask for quotes. On the other hand, I do see him go back in there and change things. He’s got his own opinions.”
Opinions? How about the need for guardrails alongside canals (from June 30, 2001)? “Broward County and the Florida Department of Transportation are killing people.” Or the Broward County School Board’s decision to disallow Boy Scout meetings on school grounds (from Nov. 4, 2000)? “It seems as though the world is going completely insane these days.” Or the use of Chinese-made fireworks on the Fourth of July (from July 3, 2001)? “The fireworks that we use to sparkle and explode our Declaration of Independence are made in communist China. As Americans, we should be ashamed in using them on this holiday.”
The Cold War is alive and kicking in Coral Springs. “The reason I do this is it’s information,” Melamed says. “And it gets citizens easily aware of what’s going on. Isn’t that what it’s about? When you’re a citizen, you’re trying to find out what’s going on.”
Combine those noble aspirations with “I’m going to make money with this thing, tons of money. I’m going to make $10,000 a month. I’m going to be a millionaire,” and you have the inception of CoralSprings.com.
“The fact is it doesn’t happen like that,” Melamed says.
How it happens is an avid reader of novels sits down at his computer in January 2000, promising to fulfill his New Year’s resolution, which is to write something. While contemplating his first passage, he begins to play on the Internet, searching for a local weather report, typing in FortLauderdale.com, which belongs to The Miami Herald. No luck, so he types in CoralSprings.com, and the site is inactive, so Melamed searches the Internet for its owner, tracing it to a man in a Montreal suburb, not far from where Melamed was raised.
“I’m showing you coincidences in life,” he says. “December, I was thinking about writing. January, I plug this thing in and out pops a guy in Montreal, Saint- Leonard, which is a small, little suburb. I write him an e-mail: ‘Are you interested in selling?’ “
For the right price, of course, he is interested in selling, and after some friendly negotiating, the right price turns out to be about $10,000. So, now Melamed owns the rights to an empty screen, which might present a challenge to somebody who hadn’t been writing computer programs on a Radio Shack TRS-80 at McGill University in Montreal, when most of North America was trying to master Pong.
“I had a knack for computers,” Melamed says. He developed his writing skills by reading newspaper articles, crunching the literary process into a four-part formula: the introduction; the discussion; the part where “you’re giving pieces of information people sort of have to know, but really what you’re doing is filling up space because your article has to be so long”; and the conclusion.
By March 16, Melamed had posted his first article, a story about the city’s hallowed covered bridge. When somebody e-mailed about a piece of information he had overlooked, it dawned on Melamed, “My God, somebody looks at this stuff.”
While the advertising dollars didn’t pour in as he might have hoped (the hobby pays for itself), Melamed found himself satisfying a craving he never knew existed, usually working between 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. He began to track gas prices, “But that became a pain in the ass,” he says. “It took two and a half hours every Sunday morning to go around to every gas station in Coral Springs.”
He posted the temperature, updating it every two minutes from a weather vane atop the office building he built, owns and in which he occupies a small space alongside his wife’s travel business. He added a link to the city’s police scanner (complete with codes) and started tracking down breaking news with his Sony digital camera.
His story on the absence of guardrails features live video of a car being pulled via tow truck from the C-14 canal. He wrote about asbestos in a portable classroom at Taravella High School two days before the Sun- Sentinel. He led a campaign for paid firefighters.
“You know I have archives,” Melamed says. “I actually have archives.” Plus restaurant reviews, letters to the editor and topical questionnaires. He even has humility.
“Listen, I’m an engineer, not an English major. You know how many people I get sending me e-mails: ‘Your spelling is atrocious.’ I wrote them back: ‘Do me a favor, correct it for me.’ And I’m getting better at it.”
The combined result is about 130,000 hits since the covered bridge story appeared almost a year and a half ago. Each time a new person logs on, Melamed’s computer ding-dongs like a doorbell and his face evolves into a kid’s on Christmas morning.
“There’s the total number of people on the site right now,” he says, pointing to figures on a screen. “There it is: one, two, three, four, five people. This guy just came out. He was on for two minutes. These guys are on for three hours. This guy’s had the site up for 15 hours. This guy’s from Pompano. …”
If anyone ever required an ellipsis, it’s Melamed, whose wife admits she can be in the midst of a conversation and notice him staring right through her, cultivating his next sentence. Certain city officials, on the other hand, might prefer a period, something a little more final.
In June 2000, Melamed described the Coral Springs City Centre as “our white elephant,” referring to what a financial drain he believed it had become on the city. The city responded a week later with a letter from the Fort Lauderdale law offices of Josias, Goran, Cherof, Doody and Ezrol. The letter disavowed Melamed’s dollar figures, demanded “a full and fair correction, apology or retraction” and promised “not to hesitate to pursue all available legal and equitable remedies.”
A Pulitzer Prize couldn’t have felt any more validating to Melamed, who posted the attorneys’ letter on his Web site and continued to poke fun. “After we stopped laughing,” he writes, “we carefully examined this letter and decided what really is at the core of this discussion seems to be the right of free press, the right of any citizen to speak their mind. … “
He is reading this part aloud in his office, still giddy a year removed. “So, now I’m laughing in their face,” he says, before getting back to the core of the matter. After the letter, Melamed requested all correspondence from the city clerk’s office regarding CoralSprings.com and found a couple of telling pieces. (Neither City Manager Mike Levinson nor Mayor John Sommerer returned calls.)
“I know for a fact that there were some phone conversations where they said, ‘Let’s scare him a little bit, maybe he’ll go away,’ ” Melamed says. “The fact is, there’s no place to go. I live here. And I’m trying to make it a better place.”