By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Lee Lawrence grabbed a bagful of trash and pushed open the front door to his convenience store. He was on his way to the Dumpster. As he stepped outside on the evening of May 20, 1989, a barrage of gunfire cut the air. Moments later the 52-year-old grocer lay dead, his blood seeping into the concrete walkway in front of Lee's Grocery.
Police, family, and friends called the murder retaliation. Lawrence had been a vociferous opponent of the drug trade in West Perrine, regularly getting in the face of dealers and their clients, ordering them to take their business out of his parking lot and off his property. He had been threatened three times before that night, but threats only made the lifelong West Perrine resident more determined, more vocal. He complained to police. He complained to elected officials. He complained to anyone who would listen. And then he was dead.
In this slip of a community with roots that crawl back generations, Lawrence's death loomed large, signifying just how bad things had become. The ardor Lawrence felt for his neighborhood, and the foolhardy risks he took fighting for it, galvanized people. Every Saturday for five months, West Perrine residents held candlelight vigils in front of Lee's Grocery, promising never to let a soldier in the battle against drugs die alone again. Ministers made Lawrence a martyr, exhorting their congregations to drive the scourge of drugs from their midst using the dead grocer's passion as an example.
In the years since the murder, one man in particular has displayed the same fire, drive, and relentless will that Lawrence did. If anyone assumed the mantle Lawrence left behind in West Perrine, it was Ed Hanna. He and Lawrence saw the same rot. The pair were friends. But Hanna decided to fight on a different battlefront. Rather than facing down drug dealers on the streets, Hanna took a broader view. Economic growth became his obsession -- jobs, housing, and new businesses would cure what ails West Perrine, Hanna argued. He founded the West Perrine Community Economic Development Corporation (CDC) in 1985 as a vehicle for this vision. In the past fifteen years, Hanna has pursued this goal with a single-minded fury that some say can come off as arrogance.
While Hanna may have bruised some egos, his economic dream has reaped mighty rewards. Perhaps the tragic confluence of events, beginning with Lawrence's death, helped Hanna get the ear of people who could help. Maybe the times were right for calling attention to the plight of this poverty-pocked section of South Miami-Dade County. Lawrence's death, after all, was covered by the New York Times.And in 1992 Hurricane Andrew's ravages brought the national media to West Perrine again.
Whatever the context and its influences, no one can argue that Hanna has been the man with the Midas touch in West Perrine. In the past eight years, the charismatic and driven Hanna has secured more than $20 million in government grants and private donations for his efforts to turn the area around. Hanna himself was enriched, too, with a six-figure salary befitting a top corporate executive.
Given the millions of dollars that have been spent in West Perrine, one might expect this one square mile of Miami-Dade to shine as a beacon of vibrant growth, smart planning, and snappy design. It doesn't. The CDC has built new homes and a complex Hanna believes will one day become a bustling district of offices, social-service agencies, and small businesses. Today West Perrine is a community of modest homes, many vacant lots, and a struggling commercial area, with a little more hope than it had the night Lawrence died. More hope, that is, until Miami-Dade County began asking whether the money it funneled to Hanna's CDC was wasted.
Last year the county Audit and Management Services Department audited West Perrine CDC and twenty other nonprofit organizations that received U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dollars for affordable housing and economic development in the past four years. The federal government has awarded Miami-Dade County approximately $28 million annually for such projects during that time. The audit focused on money administered through the Miami-Dade County Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED). Auditors investigated how grant money was spent, the method of deciding which organizations receive the money, whether sufficient progress had been made on development projects, and the effectiveness of the way OCED monitors projects the county commission funds.
The results, released this past December, were uniformly disturbing.
According to county auditors, many CDCs continued to be funded even though results fell short of promises. For instance Hanna's organization received $300,000 in 1999 to operate a program for small businesses housed in the CDC's commercial center. Auditors questioned the need for the money since the three commercial complexes the CDC has built "are virtually empty." Many CDCs obtained money for projects that never got off the ground. One organization had received $459,000 since 1992 to support the development of a 42-unit apartment complex in Little Havana; eight years later the land remains vacant. County auditors also noted that many CDCs spent more than 80 percent of their grants on salaries, and questioned whether conflicts of interest existed within several nonprofits. Hanna's CDC was criticized because two employees, who each earn $64,000 annually through contracts with the CDC, also operate a private company that manages CDC properties at a fee of $48,000 per year. Auditors questioned Hanna's need for property management, because two of the commercial properties were vacant and the third was only 38 percent occupied.