A Sunday at Roberto Clemente Park in Wynwood: Working-class families cluster to hear conga drums accompanied by squeaking swings and shouts of glee. By the bleachers, sellers hawk cuchifritos — fried pork — to fans watching men play baseball. Nearby, aspiring basketball stars pack eight courts.
But the shabby community center between NW 34th and 35th streets along NW First Avenue remains deserted. A tall metal fence surrounds it.
It's been like that for nearly three years. People have lost patience.
The park offers children no computers, no permanent toilets, and no place to seek shelter when it rains. After-school programs are run from a trailer. Recreational aides tend to about 30 children. A new building could serve 300.
Boys attending basketball practice have spied homeless people sneaking into the closed center to sleep. "Everybody be breaking in," says 12-year-old Joshua Rollason. "You don't even want to know what happens there."
"All we have is them broked-up bathrooms. That building's ugly and got cockroaches," says 13-year-old Billy Dorival, who claims to be the fastest runner in his grade. "We need a gym."
The problem lies squarely with mismanagement of a $255-million bond approved almost seven years ago to fund hundreds of small and large projects around Miami, including Roberto Clemente, Little Haiti, and Bicentennial parks.
To get the plan passed just weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, calculating city leaders gave it an Orwellian-sounding name — Homeland Defense/Neighborhood Improvement Bond — though only 12 percent was slated for public safety. "It's extremely deceptive," commented then-Mayor Joe Carollo, who refused to endorse the measure after the commission unanimously agreed to put it to voters in early October 2001. "It's wrong to use the situation we have in our country today to try to get these bonds approved."
Splashy mailings were sent out to Miami residents saying the bond would be used for "Nuclear Biological Chemical Disaster Supplies."
Ex-Commissioner Johnny Winton defended it before the vote: "You're always looking for the right buzzwords. That's part of the selling process."
The city didn't do much research on cost, says Robert Flanders, who chairs the board that monitors bond spending. "It was done as quickly as we could," he says. "Literally, a guy in a closet with a yellow pad scribbled a Christmas wish list of needs. If we could have taken the time, it would have never passed. Rest assured, we [will] be more professional the next time."
City officials spent only $70,000 on advertising for the plan, yet it passed with 56 percent support. "I think people voted for it because they were lulled into this fear thing, and [proponents] loaded in other things that didn't have anything to do with homeland security," says Steve Hagen, who heads the parks committee for Miami Neighborhoods United, a coalition of 20 homeowner associations. "It was the sort of thing that you hold your nose and vote for it."
Nina West, who sits on Miami's planning advisory board, still feels bamboozled. Voting no would have been like rejecting "mother and apple pie," she says. "I remember voting for it, but I don't know how many more bond issues I will ever, ever vote for."
Seven years later, the bond program faces cost overruns and years of delay that have added up to a $39-million shortfall. Indeed the June 2007 arrest of 10 employees in the city's capital improvements department, which was carrying out the projects, was just the latest setback.
Among the quagmires:
• West End Park: A plan to improve the pool lagged. City Commissioner Tomás Regalado fought to rebate angry parents who had prepaid for a program this past summer at the pool. Children had to be bused to another park because the pool was shut down. (It reopened in the fall.)
• Little Haiti Park: The city pledged to construct "an approximately 30-acre park with a community center and full facilities." The park and rec center, which cover about 12 acres, are set to open in May, two years after the target date.
• Bicentennial Park: The city promised to provide "sightlines to the water, install a 50-foot bay walk with palm trees, lighting, and benches," and "install additional landscaping." The $10 million set for that project instead went to pay for a seawall. An additional $7 million was slated for Museum Park, but those plans were cut back. Construction might begin next year.
• Orange Bowl: $16 million was spent to renovate the stadium that is set to be torn down within the next month or two.
"They probably used a lot of napkins in developing the concept," said City Manager Pete Hernandez, who blamed scant advanced planning, skyrocketing construction costs, and delays for the projected $39-million shortfall in April 2007. The city has spent about $146 million so far. "Now we're faced with the situation of reallocating funds, which is always very difficult to do, if not improper."
But the most painful shortfall is Roberto Clemente Park, named for the first Latin American player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a hero to many Puerto Ricans in Wynwood. The now-shuttered center once hosted parties, free clinics, and concerts. The baseball fields, basketball courts, and playground have become a hub for families.
In 2005, members of the bond oversight board approved $810,000 to replace the center's termite-infested roof, paint the building, and repair floors. They set a completion date of April 2006. An architect was hired to renovate the building, but more extensive damage was discovered. The building closed in summer 2005.
Around that time, Dorothy Quintana, the tireless 98-year-old activist for whom the center is named, asked Mayor Manny Diaz to strip her name from the building. He assured her the project would be completed within months. It wasn't. "I don't believe anything they say," comments Quintana. Her name — or actually only a handful of scattered letters — remains on the building.
Luis De Rosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, spent years on the bond oversight board. He says he was ashamed of the lack of progress, so he relocated baseball games he had scheduled for the park. In 2006, he refused to show the place to Clemente's son, Luis. "It's an embarrassment to the city," De Rosa says. "The issue is [the capital improvements department]. The folks in that office can't realize what the name of Roberto Clemente means to the City of Miami."
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents part of Wynwood, is the latest politician to make big promises about Roberto Clemente Park. He spoke with about 50 residents at Iglesia Bautista de Wynwood, a humble church, in December. When an organizer from Miami en Acción, a grassroots effort of the Miami Workers Center, pressed for answers about the ignored park, Sarnoff peeled off the headphones feeding a translation and stood abruptly.
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"Now, where I come from in Brooklyn, good manners is that you don't make demands," he scolded. "You make requests."
Sarnoff later pledged he would try to look for more money to add a gym along with the $1.8 million already set aside for the center. "If you wait awhile, I'll get a Cadillac," he affirmed, promising an even better park.
The city says it's now designing a 10,000-square-foot building with a computer room, an indoor basketball court, and space for about 300 children. Of course, it's unclear whether that will ever happen. The new estimated price tag is $3.9 million, so the city still has to find $2 million to complete the project.
Responds Quintana: "Seeing is believing. Hay que ver para creer."