Black in the Red

Everyone expected Charles Howze's Z Mart to be a model for minority-run businesses in Dade. In a sad way it was: It went bankrupt.

Howze isn't giving up, and he says he's more frustrated than discouraged by all the talk of Z Mart's demise and its resonance in the black business community. As he sees it, there ought to be a little more action and a little less blather. "I happen not to be impressed with people who talk about black economic development, unless you put it on the line," he says. "If you take the resources that you have, and the time and talent you have, and go put it on the line in a place like Liberty City, then I believe you're interested in economic development."

But on this Saturday, the last weekend of Z Mart's tenure at 1100 NW 54th St., the nearly vacant store is anything but alive with hope. What hope exists is tucked away inside Charles Howze, who is spending the day tending to the last-minute details of relocation. Good inventory needs to go to the Opa-locka warehouse. Heap the other stuff up front for the eleventh-hour scavengers. Dismantle all the shelving and fixtures; throughout the weekend, other merchants with visions of their own success will be stopping by to cannibalize.

"It's never pleasant to go through something like this," Howze says without discernible emotion. "But one thing I've learned is that there are different stages of development you have to go through in life. And this, I guess, is one of those stages." He plants his loafered feet firmly and crosses his arms in a posture that's equal parts defiant and defensive. Above him hangs a sign that reads, "HAPPY HOLIDAYS, MERRY CHRISTMAS."

Wincing at the notion that his company has failed, he prefers to use the phrase "a difficult transition" to describe his straits. "The majority of businesses fail within the first two years, a bigger percentage drop off within three years," he points out. "We're in our fourth year now. We beat the odds in staying around as long as we have. There's no doubt the company will go on in some form."

He knows it won't be easy. Clearing out of the store by Monday is one hurdle, but the next involves persuading his creditors and the bankruptcy judge to accept his reorganization plan. He has already opened a T-shirt stand at the 163rd Street Mall and is eyeing a storefront in a strip mall in Richmond Heights for more of the same. He has also begun discussing terms with the City of Miami regarding the opening of a scaled-down Z Mart in a 2500-square-foot space at the Overtown Shopping Center. His creditors, he says, have given him "a good response" so far. (Several creditors subsequently voted against the plan during a bankruptcy hearing January 25, after which Howze was given another month to gather the support he needs to continue. "I'm worried to death," sighs former partner Joan Donaldson, who still has her house tied up in the business. "At this point in my life, I don't want to start over.")

Howze says he isn't agonizing about the state of his enterprise. "I have a firm philosophy: Once I make a decision, man, I don't look back. I made the decision to reorganize. And now I'm more convinced than ever this project is doable and can be replicated in a lot of locations. As soon as we get back on track, believe me, this thing's going to be done."

Asked how he feels, he quickly responds, "Tired." With that he turns and strides back among the remains of his enormous store, its emptiness making it look more vast than ever.

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