Black in the Red

This isn't the way it was supposed to turn out. The vast space on NW 54th Street in Liberty City once teemed with colorful merchandise that stretched from the clothing and shoe departments on one side, through sporting goods and electronics, to housewares, toys, and health-and-beauty aids half a city block away. But barren racks and shelves are about all that's left now, metal skeletons scattered across an endless landscape of linoleum. Like a stadium after a devastating home-team loss, the life has all but gone out of Z Mart, whose owner filed for bankruptcy last November. On this cool winter afternoon during its last weekend of business, the discount store is a cavernous shell of its former self, littered with the detritus of failed commerce.

The dregs that remain are strewn along the few short aisles that are still intact. A smattering of cosmetics, a motley assortment of hardware and auto parts. Toys and cleaning solvents. Some of the merchandise is opened and damaged, elsewhere husks of empty packaging recall other goods that presumably have been pilfered. Where a staff of 75 employees once saw to customers' needs, today a few workers drag dollies loaded with salvaged inventory destined for a storage facility in Opa-locka and an uncertain future. A few doubtful shoppers who've wandered in sift through heaps of half-price odds and ends, looking for nothing. A lone cashier absently sucks at a soda; the other eight checkout counters are empty, their shiny cash registers like so many third-stringers sitting dejectedly in unsoiled uniforms.

Surely no one who attended the store's August 17, 1991, grand opening foresaw such a fate for this enterprise, which had sprung from the ambitions of three former department store managers, all of whom were black, all of whom had staked their life savings and reputations on Miami's only black-owned department store. The trio had pulled together a diverse team of private financial institutions to invest in a depressed area that long had been shunned by most big retailers and financial lenders.

Z Mart was to be an unprecedented community-oriented enterprise, one that would keep Liberty City dollars in Liberty City by employing residents, buying merchandise from local distributors, and gearing inventory toward black consumers. It was going to provide a needed boost to the ailing community and set an example for the development of black-run businesses throughout Dade.

What actually came to pass, however, was three years of lagging sales that led to major cutbacks in retail space and staff, and, finally, Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors. Charles Howze, the only founder still involved in the company, has been forced to vacate the massive retail space. Now, under the supervision of a U.S. bankruptcy court judge, he hopes to reconstitute his store elsewhere, in a significantly smaller form.

Z Mart's failures have provoked considerable self-reflection in the business community and accelerated an ongoing reassessment of the way minority businesses, specifically black-owned enterprises, are nurtured and financed in Miami. "This was the Super Bowl," says Bill Wynn, a long-time Liberty City business leader. "It's a travesty, because it had in its dream the potential to really establish in Miami a visible, high-profile model for the black merchant class, which is what we really need."

Indeed, some now wonder whether Miami will ever have a healthy black entrepreneurial class. Even John Hall, an executive vice president of the Beacon Council, a quasi-governmental organization whose purpose is to promote local businesses, is far from confident. "Think about it: How long have we had to go to get to 1995 and not have one?" Hall asks, shaking his head. "Are we going to go another ten years and still not have one?"

Visit z mart on its inaugural day was to understand the sense of hope wrapped up in the enterprise. It's not every day, after all, that mayors, commissioners, civic leaders, and business big shots -- not to mention reporters and cameramen and thousands of community residents -- turn out for the opening of a store.

Amid all the celebrants, the balloons, and the streamers, Z Mart had its biggest day of business ever, recalls 45-year-old Charles Howze, a man of medium build and a soft-spoken yet direct demeanor. In a rare sedentary moment, Howze is sitting in a small, windowless room in the rafters of the Z Mart building, recounting the laborious birth of the store he now must close. These days he has been in constant motion, hammering out the final details of his reorganization plan, meeting with creditors, attempting to sell them on his strategies for saving the corporation while dismantling the existing store. He's so busy he's had to cancel two scheduled interviews and finally, reluctantly, he has set aside a couple of hours on a Sunday, his "rest day" as he calls it. But even then, as he charts Z Mart's troubled history and unrealized promise, business phone calls interrupt constantly.

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Kirk Semple