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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Corine and Harry's market is surrounded by old apartment houses. Inside the store faded turquoise-hue paint on the walls and ceiling are stained from water that seeps through the leaky roof. The deli case still works but the glass is so old it is barely transparent.
"I really need some help," Corine declares. "Because for 30 years I was here and no one come to give me one dime."
Not only that, but as the Bradleys' sales have gradually declined over the past decade, the cost of doing business has soared. Corine and her husband, like other small grocers in Miami, pay hundreds of dollars in fees and licenses every year: $250 for a certificate of use, $100 for an occupational license, $50 to sell cigarettes, and another $250 to dish out hot food. On top of that, it costs $450 for state and federal licenses to sell beer and wine. "They are killing us with license [charges]. When we started getting licenses from the City of Miami they were like $15," she groans. "Licenses that we were paying $55 for went up to $250." On top of that there are property taxes and other expenses. "My water bill is horrible," she moans.
Just after 5:00 p.m. a flurry of customers arrives, mostly for Corine's hot food. Some have just finished work; others have been hanging out nearby all afternoon. Today's menu: fried chicken wings, stewed chicken, and yellow rice seasoned with ingredients she refuses to disclose. Every few minutes she dishes it up from an electric hot plate near her cash register for three to five dollars per serving. "This is like home for a lot of them. When we close, they [are] lost," she says.
Despite the popularity of Corine Bradley's cooking, the store doesn't take in enough cash to pay for badly needed repairs. "I need total renovation: the roof, the inside ceiling, the bathroom, the floor, the walls," she says. She also wants to replace a deteriorated wire fence around the small yard behind the building because several homeless people like to stay there. "I also need an iron fence in the back," she explains. "The only way I can keep them out is to put an iron gate out there."
Just a half-mile south of the three grocery stores, the shiny multimillion-dollar Enterprise Community Center on NW Fifth Street symbolizes the gulf between the county's spending power and Overtown's flagging businesses. In a snazzy conference room inside, Ignacio de la Campa, county economic development director, is telling New Times about the commercial-revitalization grant program. An elegantly dressed, mustachioed, and affable Havana native, de la Campa worked as banker at Irving Trust in New York City until the early Eighties, when he took a job at the county, where he currently earns about $80,000 per year. The source of the commercial revitalization money is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The main purpose of the program is to improve the façades of buildings," he says. "It's intended really to help neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods." Grant winners also must be located in areas that need commercial revitalization, he adds. "Once the look of the area is changed," de la Campa points out, "then it will become more attractive for economic investment." That's the theory, anyway.
So aren't these Overtown grocery stores the perfect candidates? De la Campa picks up the phone and calls his assistant, Javier Dominguez, who is back at the Office of Community and Economic Development at the Stephen P. Clark Center. De la Campa is consulting with Dominguez because the assistant was more closely involved in the grant selection process. "They were not in a commercial corridor," De la Campa asserts as he hangs up the phone. Then he elaborates on his explanation. "The aim of the program really is to change the look of a commercial corridor, really." He contends the Overtown businesses are too isolated, "like in the middle of a housing project, let's put it that way.... I wish I could set up a grant program for those businesses." The city never guaranteed matching funds, he adds.
Then the former banker says that a variety of loan programs are available for small business owners like the Moores and Bradleys. He also concedes that, personally, he doesn't think giving grants to businesses is good policy. Loans make more sense in the long run. "May the strongest survive," he comments with a smile, while hurrying through the lobby on his way to a county commission meeting. "That's what business is all about, right?"
Many taxpayers would likely agree with de la Campa's preference for loans rather than grants. But ironically, while the county denied grants to struggling Overtown enterprises, it handed out money to much bigger companies with far more extensive sales. For example, the county gave $67,110 to Coastal Textiles, whose director Roger Rand is also CEO of Dade Corners Marketplace, a west Miami-Dade institution. (Rand declined comment on the grant.) County administrators also doled out $100,000 to All Florida Paper, which is owned by Marisel Caceres and her husband, Armando. The Cacereses' business, located in a warehouse just north of NW 63rd Street on NW 37th Avenue, has annual sales that exceed ten million dollars, according to the U.S. Business Directory, a national database.