By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
This story was updated Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
When Fort Lauderdale officials pledged $7.5 million, plus debt service, in poverty dollars for the Wave, it didn’t make sense.
The 2.7-mile streetcar line would serve only a few blocks of the Sistrunk corridor in the city’s northwest section. And despite the many urgent needs of this blighted African-American neighborhood, it would be subsidizing a project to benefit, in particular, white downtown merchants, developers and more affluent property owners.
The city finally bade goodbye to the Wave in May, dumping a boondoggle that wouldn’t fulfill anyone’s dream of transporting tourists or even lots of locals. Without laying a single track, project managers spent a reported $33.7 million on lobbying, consulting, lawyers, etc., in a decade-long gamble to bring a controversial $225 million proposal to life.
Earlier this month the city announced that checks will go out on Feb. 1 to downtown property owners who paid a special tax for five years to raise the Wave. The refunds, with interest, will amount to almost $10 million, according to the Sun Sentinel.
But with a little-noticed budget vote on Nov. 20, Fort Lauderdale commissioners, who also run the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), decided the Sistrunk district should take a hit of either $1.67 million or $2.9 million, depending on who’s doing the math.
The Northwest CRA shortfall plan was rubber-stamped at Tuesday’s CRA board meeting, according to Frank Schnidman, an opponent of the plan who was there. “It seemed like they felt that the slum and blight and need for affordable housing of the Sistrunk CRA did not need the money, so why take if from the DDA [Downtown Development Authority], the white property owners, or the city?” he wrote in an email.
The prospect of Sistrunk losing money on a non-starter–while richer neighbors recoup every penny–saddens and angers the activists who have raged against the Wave’s unfairness from the start.
“I’d like to know how our ‘trusted’–you can put that in quotes–city officials could allow something like this to happen, and no one wants to own up to the decision that was made,” said Marie “Ms. Peaches” Huntley, a Sistrunk resident and businesswoman. She is CEO of On Call Leadership, a nonprofit that mentors disadvantaged youth.
Huntley has two outspoken allies, Schnidman and Scott Strawbridge.
“The CRA’s money was hijacked by the city,” said Schnidman, a retired Florida Atlantic University professor who is a consultant and expert on CRAs. “Shame on the politicians that support this reverse Robin Hood scheme.”
Strawbridge said, “I’m at a loss as to how this is a fair, right or equitable thing to do.” A city housing authority employee, Strawbridge recently ended his voluntary service on the Northwest CRA advisory board–largely because of the refund gap, he told Florida Bulldog.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, a staunch Wave opponent who was elected in March, said, “We certainly do not intend to shortchange the CRA and if necessary we will have to supplement it with whatever sources of funds that we can in order to make the CRA whole.”
He referred a reporter to City Manager Lee Feldman for a full explanation of the rationale behind the refund.
Not enough money for CRA
The mayor’s commitment to the Sistrunk CRA was news to Strawbridge and Schnidman. They said Feldman, who is also the CRA’s executive director, made it clear there wasn’t enough money available for full refunds and the northwest CRA district would absorb the loss.
Strawbridge calculated that loss would be almost $3 million based on information shared at the Nov. 20 meeting. Following up on Dec. 10, he learned from Christopher Lagerbloom, who will replace Feldman next month, that Feldman wasn’t budging.
“Yes, my recommendation stays the same,” Lagerbloom quoted Feldman in an email. “There’s no requirement to repay the CRA and the city’s general fund is taking a large enough hit at this point.”
Asked about that statement in an email, Feldman did not respond. Separately, Feldman wrote to Florida Bulldog that the shortfall will be $1.67 million, not $2.9 million.
Why the disparate treatment of the city’s downtown and northwest neighborhoods?
“I feel everybody’s beating around answering that particular question because they don’t want to say the wrong thing or make it seem like it’s a racist thing,” Huntley said. “People don’t want to pull the race card when it comes to issues like this, but why would we be the last kept secret?”
Third most segregated city
“This money is supposed to raise this community up,” Strawbridge said. “Fort Lauderdale, regrettably, is the third most segregated city in Florida, and with this type of conduct, that would be expected.”
Asked to respond to the accusation of racism directed at the northwest CRA district, Trantalis sounded irritated.
“It also includes the entire Flagler Village area, so why is that racism? If you look at the allocations of the CRA funds throughout the boundaries of the redevelopment area, you will see that the Sistrunk area has received more than the Flagler area, as it should because there’s a greater need there,” he said.
“For them to say they didn’t get their share is inaccurate and petty,” Trantalis said.
But Flagler Village, in the Flagler Heights neighborhood, is part of the problem, according to the Sistrunk activists. They say too many city resources are used for developer incentives there, rather than to encourage investment and build affordable housing in the poorer part of the same CRA district.
The gentrified enclave east of the FEC railroad tracks has apartment rentals that far exceed the means of most Sistrunk residents living a few blocks to the west, Strawbridge said. At Flagler Village, a 600-square-foot unit can go for $1,800 to $2,000 a month.
Schnidman, who wants a state audit of the Wave refund mechanism, called the unlamented project “a toy train going nowhere on 20th Century technology.” He said the whole thing, including the way it’s unraveling, is another misuse of “a politically favorable slush fund.”