By Michael E. Miller
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There are paperback books, LP records, baskets, computer keyboards, and even a vintage Polaroid camera for sale at the People With AIDS Coalition thrift shop at 270 NE 39th St. The charity donates some of its used wares -- furniture, kitchen utensils, and clothes -- to indigent people who usually are HIV-positive and come in from the street seeking relief. At the client-intake office, located in a building behind the secondhand store, PWAC secretary-treasurer David Trussell updates the organization's mailing list, which he says reads like a who's who of Miami. Rubber dinosaurs, which are gifts from friends, are lined up atop his computer monitor and bookshelf. Monte Williams is at the front desk waiting for the day's first walk-ins. Above him, hanging on a wall, are portraits of PWAC's three founders, all of whom died of AIDS.
“Anyone who comes through the door looking for help is very likely going to be speaking to someone affected by HIV directly or indirectly,” Trussell says. “Everyone here is on a mission.” The 61-year-old New York native, who is disabled and can barely walk, joined PWAC as a volunteer in 1993. In the early Eighties, he helped found one of New York City's first AIDS support groups.
Although PWAC has been operating the store for seven years and using the profits to help to some of Miami's most vulnerable citizens, the organization must close it. Last week the City of Miami gave PWAC six months to close and demanded biweekly updates. Not an easy pill to swallow for the group, which makes about $14,000 per month, more than half its income, from the store. (It also receives revenue from donations and four tenants of the 39th Street property.)
Dismantling the shop will be difficult, says Tere Angel, the coalition's president. PWAC board members are thinking of replacing it with a boutique, a health-food supermarket, or an Internet coffeehouse and bookstore. “We're going to have to change the whole concept of our operation,” Angel explains, adding the coalition will continue to sell and donate recycled goods from another location, though it's unclear where.
PWAC got its start in 1989, in an office of the Body Positive Resource Center, an AIDS group that closed last month. Initially PWAC was an advocacy and education organization that served gay people. But it quickly branched out. In 1993 founders Gene Suarez and Charles Hutchinson bought the property on NE 39th Street, just outside the city's Design District, and opened the thrift store. Now PWAC provides services to about 1600 HIV-positive women, men, and children. It refers them to other AIDS support networks, counsels them, and sometimes even pays their rent and distributes essential goods.
PWAC's problems began last summer when the city's Upper Eastside Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) received an anonymous complaint about the store. Code enforcers found PWAC had never pulled a certificate of use or an occupational license. On January 26 PWAC board members were ordered to appear before Miami's Code Enforcement Board to plead their case. (Trussell claims PWAC had paid for a certificate of use in 1995 and never received it.) “No one ever said boo until now,” Trussell says. The board ordered PWAC to dismantle the operation.
Around the same time the city cited PWAC, developers began circling the place like vultures, Angel says. “We know for a fact that our property could very easily sell for $1.2 to $1.5 million,” she adds. “But they were offering less.” Indeed the property is prime real estate. It is located near the eastern entrance to the Design District, which has gained popularity as a center for upscale shoppers in recent years.
PWAC board members believe the city may be in cahoots with developers who want to take over the property. As evidence Angel displays a Design District master plan obtained from a PWAC tenant. It shows PWAC's property blacked out and described as proposed urban infill. “Somebody has identified our property as a piece of land they want to develop,” Angel notes. “The city thinks that by moving the thrift shop, that property is going to be available.” NET administrator Fred Fernandez denies the assertion. “There is no hidden agenda here about real estate,” Fernandez says. “We don't know anything about any developers. We recognize the good work that they're doing, and we're sorry that this is happening, but we have to enforce the rules. Step by step we're cleaning this area.”
Craig Robins, who helped redevelop both South Beach and the Design District, is interested in purchasing the PWAC property. About a year ago Robins says he offered to buy the complex for about $550,000 and then a few months ago met with the group's secretary-treasurer, David Trussell. Tere Angel, however, claims Robins has come into the office with offers once a week for months. “That's not true,” says Robins, who owns an empty lot to the north of the thrift store. “We have made offers on just about every property in that area. [It] is of no priority or strategic value to us.... The last thing I want is to look like some vicious developer preying on some charitable organization.”
Robins contends he offered to advance PWAC cash, clear the coalition's debts, and lease the property to it for three years rent-free if it would agree to sell. “I genuinely care about them and am genuinely interested in helping them,” Robins asserts.