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It is precisely this knack for getting what he wants out of his connections downtown that made Hardemon, despite the legal troubles looming over his head in 1997, a logical choice for the MLK board. At that time MLK was in debt, the Business Center had few tenants, and there was even talk of dissolving the organization. Since Hardemon joined, taking the helm as chair in 1999, the community organization hasn't exactly flourished (it is still in debt), but things have gotten better: The once nearly empty Business Center has attracted new tenants, primarily small-business owners and some nonprofits (including Youth of America, run by Hardemon's brother, Walter).
But if Hardemon's political clout earned him a seat on the MLK board, and appears to have at least improved the situation at MLK, it also has some of his colleagues worried.
Earnestine Worthy, an MLK board member and an organizer for the Florida chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, remembers welcoming Hardemon at first. "Billy knew the politics, knew the system," she says. "I thought he'd be good for MLK." Now she says she knows better. "I thought Billy was for the people," she groans, "but Billy is for himself." Worthy is worried about Hardemon's plan to raze the existing building to make way for a new facility. "We don't need MLK torn down," she argues. "All we need to do is rehabilitate. What kind of history are we going to have if we keep tearing everything down?"
The complex is outdated and cramped, Hardemon retorts. "It's built right up on the sidewalk," he notes. "We need a new building, one with parking in front." The only parking for the Business Center currently is a municipal lot located in the rear, out of sight and not entirely secure. A rebuilt Business Center, Hardemon believes, might attract a major retailer to anchor the complex. It is not a novel idea. Just across NW 62nd Street, Walgreens is leasing on a site partially developed by another community development corporation, Tacolcy.
Whatever his intentions, MLK executive director Alberta Gray shares with Worthy a sense that Hardemon is on the hustle. "I believe Billy was sent in there to get [the property] out of the community's hands and turn it over to people who want it," she says. Gray fears that Hardemon, for a cut of the action, is liable to do just about anything, including selling out the center entirely to private interests. "He makes all his decisions outside of that office," she maintains, describing what she claims is the secretive manner in which Hardemon runs the organization. "Half the board doesn't know what's going on."
Hilda Hall, a member of the MLK board for the past two years, disagrees, saying the board reserves "an adequate amount of time to discuss things that come up." As for the fear that Hardemon's talent for working the system may ultimately prove more of a liability than a benefit, allowing him to do what he wants with MLK, regardless of the community's best interests? Hall scoffs: "Every business operates based on the relationships it develops in the community it serves."
Despite such reassurances, Gray believes her suspicions of Hardemon are dead on, and are what have gotten her into trouble with the chairman. "The main target at board meetings is me," says the ten-year MLK employee, whose job is threatened by a restructuring of the organization. "Somehow I'm in the way."
Hardemon admits he is currently trying to replace Gray, but says that has more to do with putting MLK on solid footing for the future. "We're looking for someone who can write the grant proposals we're going to need, proposals for big grants," he explains. Gray laughs at Hardemon's line. And suggests he's just the latest in a long line of hustlers. "Whoever has been at MLK," posits Gray, provocatively, "has always had a [hidden] motive for being there."
But, like the disappointed prosecutors at Hardemon's corruption trial, neither Gray nor Worthy can quite put their finger on what wrongdoing Hardemon has actually committed. "There's something behind the scenes," speculates the executive director. "We just don't know what it is yet." Worthy doesn't know either, but she is more blunt about her concerns. "I'm not going to jail behind Billy," she says.
Hardemon has heard all the accusations before. And isn't going to start letting them slow him down now. "I just can't stay out of Liberty City," he exclaims, rolling through the area in his red 2002 Lexus SC430, a hardtop convertible that is a source of both pride and consternation to him. Pride, because, with a base sticker price of $61,600, the car, like the three homes Hardemon owns, is a sign that he has made it; consternation because an automobile that expensive inspires jealousy and gives ammunition to his detractors. "Man, how can you drive a car like that around here?" asks Sam Mason, president of the nonprofit Liberty City Learning Center, a former chair of MLK, and a sometime friend, sometime foe of Hardemon. To Mason the car is at best unseemly, a gratuitous show of wealth in a community where most people are caught in the stranglehold of poverty.