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Miami Herald 7/11/01

Penelas unveils poverty plan. Mayor to appoint economic officer
By Karl Ross

Acknowledging the sense of ``isolation and alienation" among many black Miami-Dade residents, Mayor Alex Penelas on Tuesday called for a concerted effort to eradicate urban poverty and announced plans to appoint a chief economic development officer.

Penelas also pledged to stimulate economic growth in distressed inner-city areas with a ``sustainable neighborhood initiative" that focuses on encouraging business entrepreneurs, and he committed to identifying new funding sources for those efforts locally and in Tallahassee.

``What are we going to do differently this time?" Penelas said, echoing a question raised by members of the Miami-Dade County Commission. ``I don't think anyone here can stand up and say, `I have the solution for Miami-Dade County,' because we are a unique community. But we have an opportunity to be a model because 20 to 30 years from now, everyone else is going to look a lot more like us."

Penelas laid out his plan after representatives of the Metropolitan Center, an urban affairs think tank at Florida International University, presented a highly critical assessment of the county's economic development efforts, particularly as they relate to blacks. Among the center's findings were:

The absence of a coherent and unifying economic vision and policy.

Insufficient access to private capital.

The absence of an environment that encourages entrepreneur.

Fragmented economic development and delivery.

Lack of a clear economic development authority.

A shortage of workforce training programs.

``Miami Dade's economic development efforts will not be successful until we tend to the economic development needs of our urban centers," said Ned Murray, an FIU professor and spokesman for the Metropolitan Center.

The center's analysis and remedial plan was funded last July with a $200,000 county grant, and was an offshoot of the mayor's ``Mosaic 2000" project, created as a response to the racial divisions stirred by the Elián González controversy.


The plan's authors say the county's African-American community was the focal point of their in-depth assessment of the delivery of economic development programs and services countywide because of obvious economic disparities between blacks and other groups.

The report cited U.S. Census surveys that showed black-owned businesses with employees in Miami-Dade grew from 1.5 percent of the total in 1992 to 2.7 percent in 1997, while Hispanic-owned businesses increased from 16.2 percent to 39 percent in the same period.

The study also noted that the 1990 Census found that the median family income in census tracts with at least 80 percent black residents was $18,572, compared to the county median of $31,113. Comparable 2000 figures are not yet available.

``When I look here at Miami-Dade County, we don't get the same kind of support from the private sector as in other cities," said Barbara Carey-Shuler, one of four black commissioners. ``We have what I call a plantation mentality here."

The center's report addressed the need to reverse poverty by creating a ``local entrepreneurial environment" in distressed areas supported by public -- and private -- sector funding, as well as by alternative financial sources, such as community development credit unions and even venture capital funds for minority-owned businesses.

The center's director, Jim Rivers, said he was encouraged by the response to their plan from Penelas and other top county officials.

``If everybody gets on board, this could be a springboard for major economic reform," Rivers said. ``It has to start with leadership, and the chief economic development officer is a key to pulling all the disparate elements together."

Penelas said he would discuss the creation of such a post during his budget address later this summer, adding he doesn't envision it as a permanent fixture in the county's bureaucracy, but rather as a means for jump-starting development.


The mayor warned there would be no quick fixes.

``This is a very complicated issue," Penelas said. ``I don't fully understand it. I know there's a lot of frustration out there, a sense of isolation and alienation [among blacks]. I just know it's my job to work with the commission to address it."

But some black community activists viewed Penelas' call for a neighborhood initiative with skepticism.

They say similar attempts have met with minimal success, including the Urban Revitalization Task Force announced by Penelas four years ago.

``There's not been any progress made. We're regressing in terms of our abilities to sustain ourselves in our own community," said Elsie Hamler, director of the Contractor's Resource Center in Miami.

Hamler said she couldn't comment specifically on the merits of the latest plan because she had not seen it. But, she said, ``there have been many initiatives already. It's a sad situation for us."

Herald staff writer Andrea Robinson contributed to this report.