From Knight Manor to Nightmare

Just when a forlorn section of Liberty City is about to get the help it so desperately needs, along comes Miller Dawkins on his political bulldozer

The haggling over money didn't cease with the closing. If anything, the friction escalated. The Urban League's first request for grant money arrived in late February, and on March 4, Duran sent his bosses a breakdown of each item requested.

Fort Lauderdale-based realtor William Murphy, one of Levine's partners in the venture, requested a brokerage fee of $70,000 for the Knight Manor sale. Duran noted that according to the sale agreement signed back in 1994, a different broker, John Mayers of Prudential Florida Realty, was to be the sole broker involved in the deal. Duran suggested the city not pay for this item.

The Urban League requested a "consultation fee" of $40,000. With the Urban League a full partner in the project, Duran wrote, "it appears that the consulting service is being made by the partnership to itself." He further noted that the City of Miami already provided the Urban League with a separate $50,000 grant to create affordable housing. He suggested that this item not be funded.

Architect Nelson Mallo, too, was asking for money; through the Urban League he has asked for $30,000 for architectural services to date. But according to the contract Mallo signed with the developers, the most the architect could possibly be owed was less than half what was requested. "Since no justification has been provided for the $30,000 requested, funding is not recommended," wrote Duran.

For something called "buyer's qualifications," the Urban League wanted $20,000. Duran declined to pay it.

Lawrence Levine billed for yet more of his legal time: nearly $6000.
Altogether, the Urban League requested $474,000 on its first trip to the city coffers for the project. After carefully reviewing each item, city officials paid out only $70,000.

"Some of the things they put in the budget we just don't agree with," comments Jeff Hepburn, Duran's supervisor. "We are going to fight them tooth and nail on every one of these things. We're here to protect the taxpayer."

By April the city still had not approved a working budget from the partnership. Levine faxed over draft after draft -- knocking out the broker's fee, tripling the amount allotted to relocation -- yet city staffers could not bring themselves to approve the figures.

On April 8, housing officials gave up trying. Elbert Waters sent a memo to Cesar Odio, asking that an outside consultant be hired to review the Knight Manor budget. According to the memo, the consultant will "research comparable projects, review and analyze historical data and review the projects' hard and soft costs, in addition to providing the City with the final project development cost recommendations."

The consultant, Keith Emery, who will be paid $4500 for his services, says he has just commenced and cannot yet provide any insight.

"I don't think any of our numbers we pulled out of the sky," offers Oliver Gross, the Urban League's director of development. "If they have problems with numbers, we have done the best we could to allay any anxieties. Whenever you have issues of difference, you try to address them."

Counters Jeff Hepburn: "Our concern at this point is, basically, that we are the only money in the deal. That is why we are so concerned. There is no commitment from the State of Florida. There is no private commitment out there. We are concerned that if this project doesn't happen, somebody is going to take the fall for it."

He means City of Miami taxpayers.
At the Elks Lodge on Northwest Seventh Avenue, transformed on this bright Friday afternoon into the kickoff headquarters for T. Willard Fair's campaign for a county commission seat, optimism reigns. A fleet of greeters stands sentry at the hall's double doors, ushering in supporters with hugs and handshakes. The tallest member of a four-person jazz band plinks slow-motion background music from a Yamaha keyboard.

Friends are asked to sign the register and to grab a handful of flyers decorated with Fair's face and his challenging slogan: JUDGE ME! PLEASE. The darkened hall is decorated with yellow and black campaign posters. One yellow and one black balloon are tethered to every chair. Standing in the back of the hall is T. Willard Fair himself, decked out in a banana-yellow suit and black cowboy boots. At Fair's side, nodding silently at every word spoken by the Urban League president, is Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins.

Fair's political race will be one of the most contentious on the November ballot. Several notable black Miamians all want the seat, and in the early going the race is so close that many local black leaders are withholding their endorsements until a runoff winnows the field. Dawkins already supports Fair. "It's all about the runoff, but I think he's going to win," the commissioner asserts.

The hopefulness of the campaign kickoff spills over to both men's assessment of the Knight Manor project. Sure, no money has yet been lined up besides the City of Miami's. But that's not unusual in a business deal. "The city's money is for preconstruction soft costs," Fair preaches. "If you want us to go and get a letter from NationsBank, we will. The city's money provided support money. This is not unique. We go forward from here."

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