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Front Page » Opinion » Pivotal Word In Downtown Authoritys Title Is Development

Pivotal Word In Downtown Authoritys Title Is Development

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Written by on February 28, 2008

By Michael Lewis
The national search by Miami’s Downtown Development Authority for an outstanding executive director will fail unless the authority’s board firmly commits to re-emphasize its own middle name: Development.

Sadly, the authority is being tugged in conflicting directions.

Its chairman, City Commissioner Joe Sanchez, wants to remake the authority as a city service agency handling citizen and merchant complaints about dirty streets and panhandlers and move it into street-front offices with city agencies that have similar duties. He plans a hands-on role to make that happen.

No top urban development leader would seek that job.

Forward-thinking leaders, on the other hand, recognize that the vital aims of luring high-powered businesses and seizing marketing and promotional opportunities for the city’s core are getting short shrift and would further wither if development gave way to street-cleaning duty.

If their view prevails, urban experts will battle for the open post.

While the authority should lobby city hall for services, its funds and energies can easily be drained if it lets the city fob off onto its limited budget more and more basics that should be part of the city’s daily routine.

The authority was established to revitalize a languishing downtown. It’s funded by property owners in the core and in the Brickell area — which long provided most of the authority’s cash but got little back in return and has vocally resented the slight.

Until the 1980s the authority ran with little city interference, as befits an independently funded body. It was spearheaded by businesspeople who sought to strengthen the city’s heart, aiming in the 1990s at jumpstarting a downtown trade and exposition center, developing affordable housing on county-owned property around a Metromover station, creating a pedestrian mall and spurring promotion to improve the area’s image as a shopping and entertainment destination.

But city commissioners targeted authority money. They insisted that a commissioner chair the board, gave the commission power to approve or reject board members and made the authority more and more an arm of the city to fund activities that didn’t yield development.

City hall tapped the authority to help fund press centers at county hall and at Miami International Airport, far indeed from downtown. The authority even had to pay to keep city-owned Gusman Center for the Performing Arts open when the city commission refused to fund it. The authority has had to look at hiring independent guards to patrol streets, supplementing the police, or figure out ways to get the streets cleaned.

Executive Director Willy Gort, who came aboard in 1994 and later became a commissioner, focused on crime, parking and cleanliness. The board sought to start its own downtown shuttle bus.

For more than a decade, a major authority focus was a Flagler Street facelift that has just concluded — with complaints from Macy’s officials that it was inadequate.

Yet while doing nuts-and-bolts jobs that the city should have funded, the authority in 1996, under new Executive Director Patti Allen, also inaugurated a Web page listing every downtown office building, showing amenities and space available to market the area to multinationals.

And under outgoing Executive Director Dana Nottingham, the authority has been planning in excruciating detail what Miami’s core should look like — another step in luring major business activity.

Unfortunately for the authority and for Mr. Nottingham, that project remains in the planning stage. Mr. Nottingham, a fine conceptual thinker, has not been front and center in the development of major downtown projects.

That perceived lack of authority vitality and relevance in mega-deals led to board disaffection with Mr. Nottingham — not a red-herring audit that "revealed" what Miami Today had reported five years ago when he was hired: that he had negotiated to commute between Virginia and Miami in his first months on the job.

As questions arose about how well Mr. Nottingham was doing, it became clear that the authority’s "job" is really two roles that cannot coexist.

Either the Downtown Development Authority will follow the Joe Sanchez model, moving in with a Community Redevelopment Agency and a Neighborhood Enforcement Team in a storefront where neighbors can complain about trash and tourists will ask where to catch a bus, or it will stay in a 29th-floor office where it can orchestrate major community advancement and sell big-name companies on locating here.

There’s no way those two environments or roles mesh.

But the city is supposed to do the nuts-and-bolts jobs every day. Everyone downtown already pays property taxes to receive basic services.

Unfortunately, nobody else will quarterback advancement downtown and properly market the city’s core. And downtown and Brickell businesses are paying a second tax to have the authority provide that leadership.

The next Downtown Development Authority executive director must be hired to do true development and to goad the city into providing from general revenues normal downtown services — and then some — that a city’s core has a right to expect.

Otherwise, a weak new director will be set up for failure from the outset — and the entire city will be the poorer for it.