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Island in the slum



In late May, Orlando's Community Redevelopment Agency sent out a proposal for a small piece of property located across West Church Street from the massive Hughes Supply headquarters, a $53 million retail, office and apartment complex that broke ground in December. Many city leaders are encouraged that the Hughes development will convert the blighted west-side Parramore neighborhood into a thriving downtown community, similar to the way Thornton Park Central and the shops along Washington Street have given an identity to the east side of downtown.

Only two companies responded to the proposal. Winfield Construction Inc. proposed to build a four-story building that would house retail on the ground floor, office on the middle floors and three penthouses on the top floor. Winfield's founder, Mark Kinchla, who began his contracting business in Boston, is no stranger to Parramore. He's converting a furniture store on West Central Street into a school run by former Magic player Greg Kite. Kinchla has also volunteered contracting duties for the Temenos Ensemble Theater, which is a block east of the Hughes development. Winfield Construction, which is developing $35 million worth of downtown property, offered $157,000 for the right to buy the city-owned property and develop the four-story building.

The other proposal was a two-story restaurant called the Junkanoo House, which promised "the complete Bahamian experience" for those who dined there. The Junkanoo, which is also the name of an annual Bahamian festival, was designed to look like a cross between a ranch house and a tiki hut. The restaurant proposal promised live Caribbean music, fire and limbo dancing, and the "distant rumbling of melodious beats -- the Ã?ridim' of the drum." The restaurant would be adorned with bright colors, rhythmical patterns, wood designs and murals of "frolicking" people in the Bahamas.

Of course, the Junkanoo would have retail space. But it was the kind of retail that allowed the Junkanoo to sell T-shirts, mugs, jackets and beer glasses. Office space would also be available in the building. But the second-floor office is for Junkanoo's managers and corporate executives. The Junkanoo's proprietors, a partnership called the Yorkshire Hospitality Management Group, offered just $45,000 for the city-owned land.

The Community Redevelopment Agency assembled a five-member selection committee that decided in June that the land should be sold to Winfield. The selection committee noted several strengths to the Winfield proposal. The committee liked that the Winfield building would have many tenants instead of just one. Winfield had much more development experience whereas Yorkshire didn't have any. And the fourth-floor penthouses were "strongly favored" over no residential proposed by Yorkshire, according to minutes of the selection committee meeting. At the same time, the committee worried that the Junkanoo would be serving alcohol with the Jackson Court senior housing complex nearby. And the restaurant's architecture wasn't compatible with the Hughes Supply building or with the buildings expected to be constructed along the rest of West Church Street.

Though the committee seems to have chosen the best project, it is far from certain that the Winfield building will receive the city's blessings. The ranking of the two proposals still has one more hurdle to clear. It must be approved by the Community Redevelopment Agency's board of directors. As a quirk of history, the seven-member Orlando City Council also sits as the CRA board.

One of its commissioners, Daisy Lynum, has been quietly working behind the scenes to overturn the committee's recommendation. Lynum, who was elected to her second term in June, is one of two black commissioners on the Orlando City Commission. Her district includes many west-side neighborhoods, including Parramore, Rock Lake and Richmond Heights, as well as all of downtown.

Earlier this month, Lynum began lobbying city commissioners in single-session meetings to vote in favor of the Junkanoo. Her reason: She wants more minority participation involved in Parramore's redevelopment.

"The public sector has more of a responsibility than the private sector," Lynum told Commissioner Phil Diamond two weeks ago. "We have to give an opportunity to someone else when we can."

The opportunity in this case would go to the Junkanoo's main backer, a well-known businessman named Tyrone Nabbie. Nabbie is a 44-year-old Bahama native who has amassed a small fortune by winning concession contracts at the Orlando International Airport and Orange County Convention Center. He is also contracted to deliver food to 4,400 inmates at the Orange County Jail and to patients at a number of Veteran Affairs hospitals across Florida. His contracts over the years have totaled in the tens, if not the hundreds, of millions of dollars. Nabbie fortune's have allowed him to buy a $580,000, four-bedroom, two-story, cookie-cutter home in an upscale Windermere neighborhood.

Lynum's lobbying on Nabbie's behalf brings up a number of questions. Chief among them is why she feels compelled to put her name behind a clearly inferior product for someone who doesn't need the income.

Lynum admits that she and Nabbie are friends. But Lynum says, "This has nothing to do with friendship, period. Friendships do not interfere with good business for me."

Then it is still curious why she would go forward with lobbying for Nabbie because the Junkanoo House is not good business for Parramore, and certainly not good business for taxpayers. The restaurant, once built, would be worth about $1 million, according to cost estimates prepared for Orlando Weekly. The Winfield building would be worth closer to $3 million. That means the Junkanoo would generate about $10,000 in real estate taxes annually; the Winfield would produce $24,000 a year. And the Winfield would be opened seven months earlier, in December 2003, meaning it would be producing taxes earlier. Lastly, the Junkanoo would likely employ no more than 40 employees. The Winfield would likely generate more than 95 permanent, nonconstruction jobs.

At this stage of the process, it's difficult to tell which way commissioners are leaning on the Junkanoo issue. Most of them say they don't know enough about the project to comment on it. Betty Wyman, who is friends with Nabbie and is familiar with Stephen Chun, another Junkanoo backer, says she needs to research the two developments before commenting. "I would like to look at both projects before I make statements to the press," she says.

No doubt some commissioners are considering how they'll be portrayed should they vote against Lynum. Former Commissioner Nap Ford, who died in 1998, was known to play the race card if he didn't get his way. He once commented that former Commissioner Bruce Gordy's vote against a Parramore land deal was a racist act, even if Gordy was unaware it was racist, a comment that was published in the Orlando Sentinel. In the 2000 election, Mayor Glenda Hood's campaign cut and pasted the Sentinel story into a brochure distributed to west-side homes.

It isn't a stretch to think that Lynum would also play the race card, given the opportunity. In her discussion with Commissioner Diamond, she mentioned race often, telling him that moving the Coalition for the Homeless deeper into Parramore was a racist act. "It was a racist move to put them there to literally destroy a community," she said.

But some of Lynum's constituents think she is the one harboring ulterior motives. Phil Cowherd, who owns 81 Parramore apartments, sat in on several meetings in which Lynum lobbied for the Junkanoo. He has two problems with her extracurricular sessions with commissioners. The first is that her meetings were less than a minute long, leading him to believe that they were cut short because Lynum didn't want Cowherd to hear what she had to say. "If these meetings only lasted 20 seconds, there's no reason why the conversations couldn't have been held at the city commission meetings," he says.

The second problem, he says, is that since the Junkanoo project is inferior to the Winfield, Lynum must have been bought out by Nabbie. "There has to be a quid pro quo here," he says. "There has to be a reason this is happening."

What concerns Cowherd the most is that Lynum is selling Nabbie's project in the name of economic fairness when nothing could be further from the truth. If Lynum wants to help Parramore, she should work toward a system that aids Parramore-area minority businessmen. "When a black guy wins, it shouldn't be a Windermere black guy," he says.

The city has a minority business program that attempts to award 18 percent of the city's contracts to minorities and another 6 percent to companies owned by women. But city leaders sometimes freelance outside of the program -- as Lynum is doing with the Junkanoo -- which has led to a number of high-profile failures. The city got the short end of a deal by subsidizing a grocery store in the predominantly black Washington Shores neighborhood. The city provided a $122,000 subsidy to a Bruton Boulevard grocery with the understanding that black owners would control 5 percent of the store. Those owners, an organization calling itself Community Pride, never paid for its stake in the grocery. Lawsuits followed, costing the city another $33,000. The grocery is still in operation but is run by a predominantly white Lakeland company.

In addition, any time a proprietor wants to put a destination-type restaurant in Parramore, comparisons to the Pinkie Lee failure inevitably follow. Pinkie Lee's, which opened in the mid-1990s in a city-owned parking structure near the TD Waterhouse Centre, filed for bankruptcy three years after opening because it didn't lure enough customers on the days when the Orlando Magic weren't playing. The restaurant owed more than $1.5 million, including $6,041 to the city in back rent, at the time it closed.

Everything else aside, the worst part about Lynum's lobbying is that it is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court expressed displeasure with Lynum's kind of free-lancing in a landmark 1989 ruling involving a Richmond, Va., contractor who successfully argued that the city of Richmond's minority program was unfair because city officials had failed to show a pattern of discrimination in hiring minority contractors. In the majority opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court warned that "generalized assertions that there has been past discrimination ... cannot justify the use of an unyielding racial quota since it ... would allow race-based decisionmaking essentially limitless in scope and duration."

The city's only remedy to preserve Parramore's historically black heritage is to compose a plan that would convert existing buildings into museums and other cultural institutions. The city might subsidize Parramore residents who won't be able to afford higher taxes as real estate prices rise. And the city can expand on its efforts to subsidize mixed-income housing, which wouldn't bring more blacks to Parramore but would at least ensure that blacks weren't shut out. "It's expected that if you can maintain that type of housing diversity, you can maintain some type of racial diversity as well," says Victor Rubin of Policy Link, a nonprofit organization specializing in equitable development.

Another option is to give up trying to keep Parramore black. It is a neighborhood only in the loosest sense. Scores of homes in the neighborhood have already been bulldozed and a smattering of industrial buildings -- gas plants and recycling centers -- dot the landscape. Most rental units are owned by white, absentee landlords. "Some areas are so far gone that it doesn't make sense to try to turn back the clock," says G. Thomas Kingsley, an associate with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Urban Institute think tank.

Or city leaders can sit back and watch as Daisy Lynum continues to arrange back-room deals that benefit the privileged few. She can always rely on historical precedent. After all, whites have been making them for centuries.


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