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.
While the county audit raised serious questions about the way federal housing and economic-development dollars are monitored in Miami-Dade, the problems may just be beginning for Hanna's organization. In terms of grant dollars awarded, between the county's housing agency and OCED grants, the West Perrine CDC received more than double the money other well-funded nonprofits received. For example the Little Havana CDC has been awarded $3 million in the past four years, while the West Perrine CDC has obtained grants that total $7.8 million.
The gravy train's regular trips may soon be threatened. A far more thorough audit of the West Perrine CDC's operation is under way. It was scheduled for completion in March but has been delayed because county auditors have not received all the documents they need.
Hanna, who is 50 years old, balks at the suggestion the West Perrine CDC somehow has fallen short. Since 1985, he says, the organization has built and sold more than 138 homes to first-time buyers. The organization also began constructing a business district along Homestead Avenue, where a ragtag collection of duplexes and shacks once stood. The work of the CDC contributed to rising property values in West Perrine after years of stagnation, Hanna says. A home that sold for $46,000 in 1998 sold for $59,000 in 2000, according to the Miami-Dade County property appraiser's office.
If anything, grouses Hanna, his CDC should be regarded as a model for other nonprofit development organizations. "Is this community not a whole lot better now?" he asks rhetorically. "Yes, the community has changed 180 degrees. Is this a better place? Yes, it is a better place. Has the crime rate gone down? Has the quality of life improved? Yes it has."
The problem, says Hanna, is that the county department overseeing CDCs doesn't factor in the obstacles nonprofits face in poor communities, or the obstacles any developer has in coping with the notoriously convoluted county permitting process. Expectations are unrealistic, he says, because the agency doesn't understand development. It's like the old folks say, Hanna offers by way of explanation: "You can't teach what you don't know. You can't lead where you don't go."
"How did you find West Perrine?" Wilbur Bell enjoys posing that question. By that phrase he means: How did you come to be in this sweet place, more country than city, south of Kendall, between SW 168th and 186th streets, U.S. 1 and SW 107th Avenue? Bell returned to his home turf 32 years ago, after serving in the U.S. Air Force. He opened Bell's Short Stop on SW 104th Avenue, a store two of his children operate today. At the time of Bell's homecoming, this part of Dade County was mostly farmland. Since that time development has woven West Perrine into the suburban sprawl that stretches south from Miami's outskirts, but it retains a rural feel. On a recent balmy afternoon, a group of men sits around card tables set up under the shade of a banyan tree, engrossed in checkers. At a nearby softball field, a small crowd clucks in disbelief and hollers good-natured insults at the umpire as Goulds upsets West Perrine 4-3. Patrons greet other customers at a local restaurant, even if they're strangers.
For all its small-town allure, West Perrine's charm has a troubling edge. The place looks as though it is from another time because, like many neighborhoods settled by African Americans, Bell explains, West Perrine was long left to its own devices. Providing water and sewer hookups and sidewalks weren't county priorities. Zoning regulations and building codes weren't enforced. People built where they wanted to, whether the property had been platted for single-family homes or not. Many of the African-American farmworkers who lived in West Perrine rented tiny wooden cottages crammed one after another onto deep lots only 25 feet wide. West Perrine had a lot of "rickety, raggedy shotgun houses," Bell remembers.
But poor and neglected as West Perrine was, unemployment really wasn't a problem years ago, recalls grocer Nathaniel Green. Anybody who wanted to make a few dollars could find a job in the fields. Farm trucks stopped by every store in the neighborhood during tomato- and bean-picking season to gather workers, he says.
When farming moved further south, the air went out of the community. Poverty and unemployment ate at its soul. In the Eighties drugs and desperation found each other. While it wasn't the kind of income that led to economic stability or would show up in census reports, some of those mired in poverty found wealth in the drug trade. Murdered grocer Lee Lawrence, who made his living the old-fashioned way, accused police of looking the other way. Lawrence suspected the drug trade was corralled in black areas like West Perrine to keep it out of white communities.
Although it's been twelve years since Lawrence died, more than 100 people gathered in the parking lot of Lee's Grocery on the evening of March 20 for the annual memorial. Father and son Rochelle and Greg Swan grilled chicken and deep-fried yellowtail snapper and hush puppies for the crowd. The Cathedral of Praise Youth Choir sang. Rev. Walter T. Richardson of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church reminded the audience how bad things had gotten in West Perrine the night Lawrence lost his life. And he reminded them how much things have changed. "We are here to let the world know, we are here to let Dade County know, we have not forgotten the vision of, the murder of, and the example of Lee Arthur Lawrence," Richardson trumpeted to the crowd that blustery night. When he talked about West Perrine's rebound, Lawrence mentioned Ed Hanna and the seventeen-prong plan the CDC and other community groups devised to bring change to the area in 1990. "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I heard Ed Hanna say this," Richardson intoned. While Lawrence's death gave West Perrine resolve and passion, the minister acknowledged that Hanna's obsession with economic growth gave it bricks and mortar.
When Miami-Dade County demolished 139 crack-infested duplexes, Hanna was part of the charge. The county deeded land to the West Perrine CDC for new housing. After Hurricane Andrew slammed South Florida in 1992, Hanna again recognized opportunity in tragedy. The storm tore up West Perrine. Just about every building in town that wasn't destroyed was seriously damaged. Most of the rickety rental duplexes and cottages were flattened. In the wake of the massive destruction, the CDC bought property from people whose homes and apartment buildings were wrecked. Much of Homestead Avenue, which had previously housed duplex rental units, came under the nonprofit's control, as did other lots throughout the area.
With millions of dollars in public money, Hanna's CDC built single-family homes on lots scattered throughout the community. And not just any houses. Hanna insisted the masonry houses his nonprofit built be capped with red barrel-tile roofs. The roofs symbolize quality, he explains, and that sends an important message to the home buyer and the community. West Perrine CDC pieced together tiny properties and had them replatted into standard 7500-square-foot lots. Large tracts were created for residential development. And on Homestead Avenue the CDC endeavored to give the community a central commercial district of the kind it had never had.
In addition to running the CDC, Hanna was a visible presence outside West Perrine. He served on the Metro Miami Action Plan, the Affordable Housing Advisory Board, and the Urban Revitalization Task Force -- three organizations that recommend funding to CDCs. Hanna's opinions were sought by newspapers in other states writing about redevelopment. He advised banks how to invest in poor communities and sat as a peer with some of Miami-Dade County's most prominent African-American business leaders to counsel the Beacon Council on black business development. In Overtown Hanna's CDC sponsored a concert by the Boys Choir of Harlem.
In the past four years, Miami-Dade County has sent nearly eight million dollars to the West Perrine CDC to pay for a dizzying array of business and residential endeavors. The CDC received $760,000 toward the development of 200 single-family homes (excluding actual construction costs). It obtained $501,000 to open a housing-opportunity center for potential home buyers. To pay salary costs to build a retail center, an office complex, and a small-business development center, the CDC received $350,000. In 1999 another $300,000 was awarded to the West Perrine CDC to provide counseling and other services to businesses housed in the CDC's commercial developments. The county gave the West Perrine CDC $2.3 million to develop a design center where CDCs countywide could learn how to effectively manage their affordable-housing and economic-development projects. There also was more money for a doughnut factory ($37,000), a food-distribution center ($37,000), and a landscaping center ($30,000) that were to provide employment to area residents.
One word grocer Nathaniel Green would use to describe Ed Hanna is eager, as in "eager to get the job done." Dressed for work in a striped T-shirt, jeans, and an Atlanta Braves baseball cap, Hanna could drive his 1998 white Ford Explorer down any street in West Perrine and pass unnoticed. But his unobtrusive style belies his big vision, his savvy ability to place himself in the path of money, and the hefty salary he has been paid to pull it all off.
The $7.8 million the county commission approved for West Perrine over the past four years is only a small portion of the dollars that have streamed into the organization. From June 1993 to May 1999 Hanna's CDC received a whopping $18 million in private contributions and government grants, according to the nonprofit's tax forms.
As president of the West Perrine Community Development Corporation, Hanna earned $200,000 per year in 1996 and 1997, according to tax forms the nonprofit organization filed with the Internal Revenue Service. That is about $20,000 more than Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver earns as base pay. Although Hanna disputes the $200,000 salary figure, despite the IRS filings, he says that in the private market people with his knowledge of architecture, engineering, and planning are very well paid. Hanna claims he currently earns about $96,000.
While he did not earn degrees in architecture, engineering, or planning, Hanna likens his skills to those of Donald Trump. "I don't understand where this is going," he says in protest of questions about his past. "Donald Trump is not an architect or an engineer. People who do this stuff have the expertise to put something together. I am very good at what I do or you wouldn't see what you see in West Perrine."
Hanna would not provide New Times with any personal background information, except to offer that he grew up in Overtown, attended college, and is a graduate of the Development Training Institute in Baltimore. The institute trains CDC directors from all over the nation, Hanna points out. Before founding the West Perrine CDC, Hanna was executive director of the Richmond-Perrine Optimist Club. County Commissioner Dennis Moss now holds that job.
Although the West Perrine CDC has in fact constructed buildings -- more than most of the CDCs criticized in the December county audit -- investigators noted that many of the programs Hanna espoused were either not operating effectively or not in existence.
The audit reported that of the 200 homes Hanna's organization planned to build, the nonprofit had completed just 50. Additionally the county's Audit and Management Services Department was not able to document what assistance the design center provided to other nonprofits because the records provided by Hanna's CDC were incomplete. Notes made by auditors and reviewed by New Times mention that numerous CDCs complained about the services they received from the West Perrine center. The preliminary audit also points out that three retail and office complexes Hanna's CDC built in 1997 and 1998 are virtually vacant. The doughnut factory, the landscaping business, and the food- distribution center do not exist.
The Naranja-Princeton CDC used the design center when the organization first began developing its affordable-housing program a couple of years ago, says N-P CDC executive director Charles McKinnon. The center provided a checklist of development stages and some information on funding sources, he says. McKinnon's organization did not use the Center's architectural plans because they seemed "cookie cutter," and it has not returned for other help. The director of a CDC in Model City contacted by New Times says she did not realize the design center was up and running. Another director in Little Havana said she thought the center was only available for CDCs in South Miami-Dade County.
Hanna counters that it isn't his job to bring CDCs to the design center. If the county wants more organizations to use the facility, it should require that. "What do I have to do -- go to north county and say, Y'all come'?" he asks. "The funding source gives us money to operate. It does not give us any guarantee to make sure people come. That is their responsibility."
Although the office and commercial centers have few tenants, building a business district from nothing takes time, suggests county Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes West Perrine. The commercial and office space provides an infrastructure. "Yes, you can criticize them for not having all the office space leased out, but this is not CocoWalk. It is going to take awhile as the community continues to turn around; it is going to take awhile to see that kind of interest. It is not fully leased, granted. But it replaced a rundown slum and overgrown lots that basically were a deterrent to development and a detraction to the community. The [CDC] has created at least the opportunity."
If Hanna's organization seems to be heavy on projects and short on results, McKinnon tenders the problem may lie in the way the funding system is set up. If a CDC is realistic and tells the county it plans to build ten houses in two years, no one is impressed, he explains. The 200 homes West Perrine CDC proposed just sounds better, he says. "If you don't have these grandiose plans or a high rate of housing, nobody is going to fund you," McKinnon submits. "Whatever you do, you have to do something glamorous and get some results. It is either that or watch the organization collapse."
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Hanna questions why his nonprofit suddenly is the object of so much scrutiny. The West Perrine CDC has been monitored annually by staff from the county Office of Community and Economic Development and sends an audit to the county each year. Hanna asserts he never heard any complaints about the progress of projects. "It is virtually incomprehensible to me for a county department to fund me if I wasn't doing what I said I was going to do," he insists.
There is plenty of blame to go around if funding and monitoring aren't working the way they should, Hanna believes. He says county auditors should function as a marriage counselor, forcing both the county and the CDCs to take responsibility. "I think there needs to be some team-building between Miami-Dade County and the CDCs," he suggests. "Y'all are great at talking about a marriage, but it seems like every time we meet we are going to divorce court."
Meanwhile grocer Nathaniel Green watches the fallout from the audit warily. Nat's Grocery is on Homestead Avenue across from the CDC's mostly vacant retail center. Anything that threatens the West Perrine CDC threatens all of West Perrine, he says. "If he doesn't continue to develop, then everything here will come to a standstill," Green predicts. Nat's Grocery lost its customer base after Hurricane Andrew, when the dense cluster of homes and duplexes that populated Homestead Avenue was destroyed. Green can't survive without some type of revitalization. "I need [the CDC's projects] to succeed to bring in new customers," he says.
Still the small-business owner doesn't want to see the county throwing good money after bad. Miami-Dade needs to be vigilant in watching where public money goes, he says. Green does question why the county is only now scrutinizing how grant money is spent. "That should be standard procedure," he complains. "We know what we see, but we don't know how the money is being spent. We are relying on the county to make sure it is spent properly."