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4/29/03 - Miami Herald

Poor area heart of plan, eyes are finally on Overtown

By Nicole White

TALLAHASSEE -For years the residents of Overtown, Miami's poorest neighborhood, have waited for the tales of rebirth, redevelopment and revitalization to take life in their neighborhood.

Instead, each year they've watched with increasing despair as new development has turned other struggling neighborhoods into pockets of prosperity, somehow shunning this neighborhood that's been yearning for a chance to be what it once was: one of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in Miami.

Now two Cuban-American Republican lawmakers say they have the answer to Overtown's woes. Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and freshman Rep. David Rivera are pushing legislation to create a tax-free urban revitalization zone to entice businesses to the area.

With only a week to go in the Legislature, the proposal faces an uphill battle because it was introduced too late. But supporters have vowed to bring it up again next year.

''Overtown is the poorest of the poor in Miami,'' said Rivera. ``Everyone in Miami, regardless of race or party affiliation, should be embarrassed enough to do something.''

But there are plenty of skeptics.

The fact that the proposal is being pushed by two Hispanic politicians, who represent constituencies that are ethnically and financially worlds apart from the realities of Overtown, has raised some eyebrows.

Is this, they ask, the manifestation of rumors that powerful business forces have spent years dreaming up ways to take over the neighborhood? There is not much land left to develop in the city. Overtown is just north of downtown Miami and, like much of the new redevelopment that's slowly transforming the city, it could one day be the perfect neighborhood for those in the business community tired of commuting to the suburbs. Or is Diaz de la Portilla helping Overtown because his brother Miguel Diaz de la Portilla may need the support of the black community as he runs for mayor next year?

Alex Diaz de la Portilla says his intentions are pure: ``If the quality of life in one part of the county is hurting, then that's important to me.''

Diaz de la Portilla says his track record speaks for itself, because he's voted for empowerment zones in the past to help the blighted neighborhood.

As the second highest ranking senator, he says he now has a louder voice in the Legislature and can do more: ``I'm doing this for people who cannot afford a lobbyist to care about their issue.''

But longtime resident and activist Irby McKnight says while he thinks the idea is novel, he admits he's leery.

''Of course I have concerns,'' McKnight said.

McKnight said he was suspicious when Rivera first asked to meet with him to tour the neighborhood and then told him of his plans. But McKnight insists he will use his position as chairman of the Overtown Neighborhood Assembly as a ''bully pulpit'' to make sure the residents are not pushed aside.


For now, McKnight, who's heard a number of empty promises in the 33 years he's lived in the neighborhood, says he'll set aside his concerns because he thinks Rivera, irrespective of any political ambitions, may actually be sincere.

''He did his homework. He came to the neighborhood, unlike other people who stayed from afar'' and decided that empowerment zones and redevelopment agencies are ''what we should do to help,'' McKnight said.

The proposal is straightforward: New businesses would be exempt from paying or collecting sales taxes. The exemptions would be granted for 10 years and would also be extended to some existing businesses that qualify. To qualify, businesses would have to hire at least 20 percent of their workforce from the neighborhood.

A seven-member oversight board -- to include an appointee by the governor, mayor and a resident -- would screen applicants to avoid an influx of too-similar businesses and evaluate the program annually. The measure has the support of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and City Manager Joe Arriola, who have both indicated a willingness to offer some property tax relief to businesses that qualify.

''We're excited to see that someone is sponsoring the legislation, and we are supportive,'' said Javier Fernandez, a senior assistant to Arriola.

Overtown has had its share of redevelopment experiments.

A Community Redevelopment Agency was created in the 1980s to spur development in Overtown and the Omni areas of Miami. The agency, funded in part by property taxes, has come under fire in recent months for what critics say is wasteful spending, with very little to show. In fact, McKnight and others launched an unsuccessful effort to recall Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr., the CRA's board chairman.

''There will be no tears shed by the residents of this community if the CRA goes. It means and has meant nothing to them,'' McKnight said. ``It could have been the panacea that brought them out of the water. Instead, it brought them parking lots, and we're still riding bicycles.''

Teele could not be reached for comment.

In recent years, the area was also designated as an empowerment zone, qualifying for state and federal dollars to boost development. But the state has repeatedly refused to match the federal contributions to get projects started.

Urban revitalization projects are not new. Several states, including Florida, have created enterprise zones, where businesses receive tax credit for investing in poor neighborhoods. Michigan recently created a ''renaissance zone'' that offers sales-tax and other tax exemptions for the first few years. Taxes are then phased in.

The project stands out, says Rivera and Diaz de la Portilla, because of the 10-year span and because there is little government involvement.


''A lot of people have imposed potential solutions on Overtown without incorporating or gathering input from the residents,'' Rivera said. ``This takes government out of the picture.''

Though the state would lose at least $6 million in sales tax revenue each year based on his proposal, he believes it would reap benefits in the long term because taxpayers would no longer have to support programs to prop up the poor.

The proposal also has the blessing of Democratic Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, whose district includes Overtown.

''I applaud this gentleman for looking across party lines and across neighborhoods. I don't know why he's doing it, I'm just glad he's doing it,'' she said.

Still, several members of the Miami-Dade delegation are not sold on the idea.

Gus Barreiro, a Republican legislator whose district includes Little Havana, another poor neighborhood, says he would be very hesitant to support the proposal for a number of reasons.


He says neighborhoods like Little Havana will wonder why they weren't included.

But even more troubling, Barreiro said, is that businesses may flock to the area en masse just to avoid paying sales taxes.

''If we're not careful, Overtown could become the flea market of Dade County. These residents could get pushed out. I don't see how this plan balances growth with the needs of the homeowners,'' he said.

Sen. Frederica Wilson D-Miami, says she, too, is worried that the residents will somehow get left behind. Plus, the requirement that businesses hire at least 20 percent of their workforce from the neighborhood is a ''pittance,'' she says.

''Anytime you try to expand or give special amenities to business as tax breaks, my antennas go up,'' Wilson said.

Urban renewal projects are often disguised as a way to help minorities but often lead to gentrification.

''Are we trying to build a black community or are we trying to build up Miami?'' Wilson asked. ``It seems to me that is about the expansion of downtown, and this is the only way they can expand without going into the bay.''