Building on the legacy of Ireland’s Inn, Andy Mitchell, CEO of The Fairwinds Group and President of Operation Lift Hope, has erected the $650 million luxurious Auberge Beach Residences and Spa in Fort Lauderdale while on a mission to end homelessness for veterans and families. With a seemingly endless supply of energy and a deep, guiding faith, Mitchell has become a strong community advocate, urging business leaders to join forces with government officials and service providers to solve the housing crisis.
Formerly a divisional president and CEO for Masco, one of largest home furnishing companies in the U.S. with over $2 billion in annual sales, Mitchell and his wife Kathy Ireland Mitchell moved back to South Florida in 2002 after being invited by Kathy’s father, Jack Ireland, and grandmother, Lillian Ireland, to take on the family business. Ireland’s Inn, opened on Fort Lauderdale beach in 1965, was known for its friendly hospitality and the Windows Restaurant that served up legendary key lime pie and pan fried chicken. However the salt and sea had taken their toll on the building over the years and it was in need of a refresh, especially after hurricane Wilma damaged it in 2005.
Andy envisioned something grand and set out to acquire the 28 parcels of land surrounding Ireland’s Inn in order to develop a sleek new property that would be truly special. It took three and a half years just to acquire the land, and Andy discovered, “people are concerned deeply about the quality of life here in Fort Lauderdale.” Over time Andy allayed the fears of preservationists and those concerned about big developers coming in by presenting an aesthetically pleasing tiered design. “I’ve always felt you win arguments by listening to people,” Andy said. “These are my neighbors and we wanted something at the end that we could be proud of and that they also had a part of.”
Kathy noted, “Andy’s gift is to take a difficult situation, make it simple and solve it. It’s a God-given talent and I’ve told him that his whole life.”
Living in Fort Lauderdale, it didn’t take long before Andy encountered the homeless problem. “There were people taking showers right here at the end of the street – no clothes on,” he said. But rather than turning the other way, he was drawn in by their stories and got involved.
“What started this thing for me really was sitting in the back of a police car with Sandra Downs-Keesling and Lorraine Wilby, interviewing the people who didn’t have a place to stay. I spent all afternoon with them, and it had a profound impact on me,” Andy said.
Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Sandra Downs-Keesling met Andy while she was working an off duty detail and struck up a conversation about her work doing community outreach. “He really wanted to find out what was going on. He didn’t think it was as complex as it is until he started looking behind the scenes at how everything works.”
Andy’s interest was piqued when he learned about her nephew, Andrew, who was in the Marines and did two tours in Iraq. “When my nephew came home, he couldn’t find a full time job, so he took a job doing private contract work in Afghanistan. Three-weeks shy of his contract being up he was killed in Afghanistan at 26 years old,” she explained. “When Andy found that out, he said, ‘How can we let veterans come back and not have a job? That’s absurd.’”
Raised by a military father, Andy said, “My dad was a Word War II Army Ranger who landed in Normandy. Lost a bunch of his guys the first couple of days. Went out on a stretcher the third day, and fortunately he survived. Disabled, but you’d never know it. Tough as nails.”
As Andy was acquiring the land around Ireland’s Inn and working to vacate the street right-of-way, it was all shut down and became a training ground for first responders. Eventually, Andy received a call from SEAL Team 6. This elite military team was looking for a place to conduct special operations training. Concerned about raising the ire of neighbors while trying to get approvals for construction, Andy was hesitant. A call from Washington, D.C. prompted Andy to meet Bruno Fallon, who heads up training for the Navy SEALs. Andy quickly realized, “These are the guys we send to the darkest part of the world who give us the freedoms we enjoy, who my dad fought for…” He solicited the support of then Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, and that night woke up at 2 a.m. in the morning for what he refers to as an appointment with God in which he was challenged to “think more broadly.” Andy was on the board of Hope South Florida, a ministry that assists homeless veterans and families, and the need was great. The next day Andy agreed to give the Navy SEALS full reign to train on his property, if they would help him get homeless veterans off the streets.
Operation Lift Hope was formed and it was the beginning of his rally cry to business leaders and the community to join forces and meet the challenge. Inviting businesses, service providers, government officials, law enforcement, foundations, educational institutions and faith based organizations to the table for an inquiry process, a synergistic team worked for six months at Broward College to develop a comprehensive plan that would fill the gaps in the continuum of care for the homeless. “This was instrumental in grasping a little bit of the fire hose of how we can put the pieces together and connect the dots. And my strength is connecting dots,” said Andy. The resulting plan simplified the Continuum of Care to four categories:
Engage – Serve the homeless in their time of need through prevention, outreach and support services.
Empower – Stabilize housing and provide supportive services through emergency, transitional and permanent re-housing.
Educate – Develop skills necessary for living and succeeding through formal and informal educational development and improvement, and
Employ – Expand income opportunities and facilitate career advancement through support and aftercare services to foster job readiness and self-sufficiency.
The next challenge was to fund it.
While going through Lifework Leadership, Andy met Admiral Vern Clark, the retired Chief of Naval Operations, and invited him to speak at Operation Lift Hope’s inaugural fundraising event, which would be a spectacular gala attended by 1,600 people in the Broward Convention Center in the fall of 2015. The first floor of the convention center was transformed into a flight deck with military equipment, SEAL team and military dog demonstrations, and SWAT vehicles. Upstairs, a professionally-produced dinner show featured a full American Legion orchestra with military regalia, presentation of the colors and a skit in which Admiral Vern Clark communicated with SEAL Teams in the field, indicating with authoritative steel that they would get the resources they needed to complete their mission. Guests received challenge coins inviting them to join the cause, and after sharing his own experience with his brother’s homelessness, Admiral Clark led the charge by personally contributing $10,000. More than a dozen business leaders also became “Joint Chiefs” in Operation Lift Hope’s mission by committing $50,000 a year for three years to help fill the gaps in the continuum of care.
Peggy Nordeen, CEO of Starmark, helped by branding his efforts and providing an online donation site. “Andy has opened many of our eyes to the possibilities,” said Nordeen. “And when the Broward Business Council on Homelessness led by Mike Jackson, Auto Nation CEO, James Donnelly, Castle Group CEO, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, United Way and Broward County was formed last year, Andy joined the council and matched Mike Jackson’s $300,000 support donation with Operation Lift Hope funds.”
Operation Lift Hope was also instrumental in creating the Crisis Bridge Housing Test Pilot Program that places homeless veterans and families in hotel rooms temporarily while more permanent housing can be arranged. Through Operation Lift Hope, Andy challenged the city, the county, and the Broward Workshop to help fund the program at $20,000 each, with the Alliance kicking in $5,000. This was the first time all of the stakeholders worked together in a collaborative way.
Since Operation Lift Hope was established four years ago, the plight of the homeless has been brought to the forefront and people are working together like they never have before. Stranahan Park where they used to congregate is now empty, shared meals sites are now available seven days a week at a variety of locations, and a day respite center has been opened where veterans and families can receive services while arrangements are made to get them in an apartment. And according to Broward County’s Point in Time Count, the homeless population in Broward has declined slightly from 2,800 in 2013 to about 2,300 at the last count. It has been a community-wide effort with Andy as one of many catalysts, and Jim Robertson, vice chair of Operation Lift Hope and founder of Allegiance Crane, points out sustaining the effort over the long run will be a challenge.
However, Representative Chip LaMarca, who has walked along side Operation Lift Hope in the process, said, “Andy has the unique combination of relentless determination to bring a project to success and the passion to make a difference in someone’s life circumstances. I am proud to call Andy a friend and I know that he is the successful business and community partner that he is because of his tremendous family, from his wife Kathy to his daughters Kate and Kristen, and the rest of their loving family.”
After what Andy calls a desert experience earlier in his career, he is quick to say, “It is never, ever, ever going to be about me again. No matter what.” Starting with Armstrong in 1974, Andy was promoted within Thomasville Furniture Industries. “I loved it because I was in touch with people. We’d win together… I became vice president, then executive vice president; I’m hopping over everybody then I got into sort of a challenge with the president who was there. I lost and I was out… At the time it was all about me thinking I’m a hot shot” but he said, “The pain is real. You have failed.” After five months of deep soul searching, Andy said he got very close to God.
When he felt all the energy had been zapped out of him, Andy received a call from Ron Jones, president of Masco. As Andy was sitting in the car awaiting his final interview in a downpour, Kathy encouraged him to read Proverbs 3: 5-6, but Andy recalled the Psalms: “I will awake again for the Lord sustains me. I will not fear… from the Lord comes deliverance.” Fired up for his interview, Andy said he looked at the Masco building and the clouds opened up above it. He was given the job and Andy said, “Every day I went in, asked forgiveness and asked God to please guide me in the right direction and help me make the right decisions.”
It was transformative. “When you feel you are in a situation where you are at the bottom of the heap and you see no way out, if you finally get connected with God, you’ll feel him grab the bars and take them off your chest, and the weight coming off of you is so significant you sleep like a baby. You don’t worry about anything,” he explained.
In keeping with their faith, Andy and Kathy buried a family Bible in the foundation of Auberge building, and it is open to the verse God gave him that day in the parking lot. “For a moment the entire construction site stopped. People took their helmets off. People were on their knees praying. We blessed the workers. We blessed their families. And we blessed the people who would make Auberge their home,” said Andy. “There was a time when I had the rug pulled right out from under me, but now God has me down here for a reason. With five flat stones and a slingshot, you can accomplish anything if you will believe and trust in Him.”