Miami Worldcenter principal developer Nitin Motwani says he expected maybe 200 people to show up at Overtown's St. Agnes Episcopal Church for a project job fair this past Tuesday. Instead, there were more like 500.
"We were overwhelmed with excitement," Motwani says. "It was supposed to end at 2 — I think we closed the door around 3. It was great."
Construction on the 27-acre, $2 billion Worldcenter — which will include a mall anchored by Bloomingdale's as well as a hotel and numerous apartments — is set to begin this quarter. The job fair was intended to fill some of what developers say are 10,000 new construction jobs for only the first phase of building; after a targeted promotion, Motwani says, the vast majority of attendees came from Overtown and Liberty City.
For Overtown, especially, the opportunities are more than welcome: For months, anger and resentment has been building in the historically black neighborhood over Worldcenter and other projects because of the perception that the developers receive public money, yet break promises to provide local jobs. While hosting discussions about the projects, several community meetings erupted in histrionics; in late January, construction equipment was set on fire in a possible protest, and local unions have been piling on their criticism of the Worldcenter, in particular, even issuing robocalls. At 4 p.m. today, Overtown residents and other concerned Miami citizens will gather downtown for a rally, promoted by the group Hire Overtown, to demand better employment opportunities. "No verbal promises," the protest flyer says. "We want guarantees."
The job fairs, too, have often been the focus of resentment when residents have often been denied employment because of ostensible skill requirements or eliminated after drug testing, leading to the belief that the developers are big on promises but short on follow-through. "I think this is a dog-and-pony show," Eddouard Prince, an Overtown activist, said ahead of the Worldcenter job fair.
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But Motwani insists Worldcenter is different. The developers are serious about employing local residents, he says, and even provided on-site resumé guidance, certifications, and counseling to help out prospective employees as much as possible. Asked how many jobs would ultimately be granted as a result of the fair, the developer said he couldn't yet provide a concrete figure, although he was adamant that the group was expecting "a significant number of folks to get hired" after follow-up interviews. "I think you'll see this was a job fair that leads to real jobs and real progress," he says.
The developer also acknowledges the long-simmering frustration but insists Worldcenter now has support from a majority of the community, citing hundreds of letters of support the group has received. Commissioners Keon Hardemon and Audrey Edmonson showed up at the job fair, as did numerous pastors and other community leaders. "We were thrilled to see such a great turnout from the Overtown community," Senior Pastor Denrick Rolle, of St. Agnes, said in a news statement.
"We made a commitment to do this the right way," Motwani adds, "and that's what I think we're doing."
The developer says more job fairs will follow as the project gets underway. "The feedback was just wonderful," he says.