From Knight Manor to Nightmare

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Lawrence Levine billed for yet more of his legal time: nearly $6000.
Altogether, the Urban League requested $474,000 on its first trip to the city coffers for the project. After carefully reviewing each item, city officials paid out only $70,000.

"Some of the things they put in the budget we just don't agree with," comments Jeff Hepburn, Duran's supervisor. "We are going to fight them tooth and nail on every one of these things. We're here to protect the taxpayer."

By April the city still had not approved a working budget from the partnership. Levine faxed over draft after draft -- knocking out the broker's fee, tripling the amount allotted to relocation -- yet city staffers could not bring themselves to approve the figures.

On April 8, housing officials gave up trying. Elbert Waters sent a memo to Cesar Odio, asking that an outside consultant be hired to review the Knight Manor budget. According to the memo, the consultant will "research comparable projects, review and analyze historical data and review the projects' hard and soft costs, in addition to providing the City with the final project development cost recommendations."

The consultant, Keith Emery, who will be paid $4500 for his services, says he has just commenced and cannot yet provide any insight.

"I don't think any of our numbers we pulled out of the sky," offers Oliver Gross, the Urban League's director of development. "If they have problems with numbers, we have done the best we could to allay any anxieties. Whenever you have issues of difference, you try to address them."

Counters Jeff Hepburn: "Our concern at this point is, basically, that we are the only money in the deal. That is why we are so concerned. There is no commitment from the State of Florida. There is no private commitment out there. We are concerned that if this project doesn't happen, somebody is going to take the fall for it."

He means City of Miami taxpayers.
At the Elks Lodge on Northwest Seventh Avenue, transformed on this bright Friday afternoon into the kickoff headquarters for T. Willard Fair's campaign for a county commission seat, optimism reigns. A fleet of greeters stands sentry at the hall's double doors, ushering in supporters with hugs and handshakes. The tallest member of a four-person jazz band plinks slow-motion background music from a Yamaha keyboard.

Friends are asked to sign the register and to grab a handful of flyers decorated with Fair's face and his challenging slogan: JUDGE ME! PLEASE. The darkened hall is decorated with yellow and black campaign posters. One yellow and one black balloon are tethered to every chair. Standing in the back of the hall is T. Willard Fair himself, decked out in a banana-yellow suit and black cowboy boots. At Fair's side, nodding silently at every word spoken by the Urban League president, is Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins.

Fair's political race will be one of the most contentious on the November ballot. Several notable black Miamians all want the seat, and in the early going the race is so close that many local black leaders are withholding their endorsements until a runoff winnows the field. Dawkins already supports Fair. "It's all about the runoff, but I think he's going to win," the commissioner asserts.

The hopefulness of the campaign kickoff spills over to both men's assessment of the Knight Manor project. Sure, no money has yet been lined up besides the City of Miami's. But that's not unusual in a business deal. "The city's money is for preconstruction soft costs," Fair preaches. "If you want us to go and get a letter from NationsBank, we will. The city's money provided support money. This is not unique. We go forward from here."

Dawkins has heard all the criticism of the project before, and of the speculation that he "torpedoed" the Tacolcy project because of a personal vendetta or petty concerns. "Tell the supporters of groups like Tacolcy that Miller Dawkins is the commissioner," he instructs, orating in the third person. "Why does he have to work with them? They have to work with him. He doesn't have to go around making sure the project is good for them. They have to go to him and make sure it is good for him."

The mere mention of the Tacolcy name causes his lips to part in a sly smile. "Let me tell you something," he barks. "Back when [County Commissioner] Maurice Ferre was the mayor of Miami [in the early Eighties], Tacolcy got everything. Ask anybody. Tacolcy got everything. I am not going to give Tacolcy everything. I am going to spread it around. If they don't like that, that's fine."

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Robert Andrew Powell