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Miami Herald 2/08/05 -

Stronger advocate for a better Overtown

Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency finally is in a better position to nurture prosperity in Overtown now that the agency's battered financial condition has dramatically improved. Last week, external auditors reported that the CRA's finances were sound. Auditors rightly credit CRA Executive Director Frank Rollason for the turnaround. The CRA for years had been hobbled by inexcusable financial mismanagement and corruption. Successive city commissions, acting as the CRA's board of directors, made matters worse by rubber-stamping bad decisions. The CRA squandered millions of tax dollars and goodwill -- and Overtown residents saw few benefits.

Finances monitored

Now the agency has a system of fiscal accountability. Administrators diligently monitor income and expenses, and the CRA pays its bills on time. Now CRA and city officials should take the next step: Overhaul CRA's structure and role so that the agency can fulfill a larger goal.

The agency's hard-won financial stability should translate into more resources for carrying out its important mission: to transform Overtown from an area of grime, blight and under-use into a vibrant neighborhood that draws new residents and accommodates long-time Overtown dwellers. An overhaul would spur private investment and provide a grand vision for appropriate mixed-use development.

The CRA can't rely on a stronger financial footing alone to make this happen. The agency must work smarter. Two city commissioners have made separate proposals that can help make this a reality. First, Commissioner Joe Sánchez wants to replace the commission as the CRA board with an independent panel of experts and stakeholders. Good idea. Commissioners shouldn't wear two hats. As it stands now, commissioners approve decisions that they have made as the CRA board. This is an insular process that has led to poor decision-making. An independent board would eliminate this conflict.

Commissioner Johnny Winton proposes to leverage the CRA's considerable income, pledging the funds to raise money through the bond market. The CRA could reap millions to pay for big-ticket capital projects such as water-main and other infrastructure improvements. Such projects can attract private-sector investment crucial to Overtown's future.

New development

The CRA has seen its tax-increment income increase steadily, thanks to new high-rises and the Performing Arts Center downtown. In 2003, the CRA received $5.8 million in tax money. This year it will receive $9 million. That's a lot of money that should be put to good use in an area of great need. The CRA should no longer settle only for disbursing small grants to mom-and-pop businesses and community-development corporations. They're helpful, but the CRA must operate on a grander scale in order to be of long-lasting merit.