When Miami Gardens became a city, critics of its incorporation said the large North Miami-Dade neighborhood was too crime-ridden, too poor. It was the city that was supposed to fail.
Over the last nine years, the third largest municipality in the county — and the largest predominately black city in the state — now boasts a reduced crime rate and national chain stores and it recently broke ground on its first permanent City Hall.
But even the city’s biggest boosters acknowledge Miami Gardens grapples with a branding problem. And on the eve of the town’s mayoral and council elections, the perennially sticky subjects of crime, taxes and economic woes dominate virtually every political platform.
“My word to whoever comes in as mayor is to remember your shoulders must be very strong and wide. It comes with a lot of responsibility and criticism,” said Mayor Shirley Gibson, who helped spearhead the move to turn the large swath of unincorporated Miami-Dade into a city and is the only mayor the city has ever known.
Gibson, who leaves office due to term limits, is challenging Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan in the District 1 race.
For Miami Gardens, Gibson’s exit marks the end of a political era — and has spurred a crowded field of would-be mayors all jockeying to replace her.
The seven candidates include two current council members: Councilman Andre Williams and Vice Mayor Oliver Gilbert, the latter enjoying a sizeable fundraising advantage with a campaign war chest of $85,000 — nearly twice that of Williams, his closest competitor.
The other candidates are fitness director Tanya James, retired police officer John Pace Jr., school teacher Katrina Wilson, mortgage banker Darrin Woods and Willie Kelley, a retired Army food-service supervisor
“We want to bring more retail in this city and opportunities through hotel investors and entertainment,” said Woods, in an interview earlier this month.
Election season in Miami Gardens is mostly cordial, unlike other cities where accusatory campaign mailers and negative radio ads are a mainstay .
“A lot of times, generally people try to make elections about things that aren’t necessarily relevant, but things that will get them elected. I don’t think we’ve fallen into that whole mass of negativity,” said Gilbert. “It’s a big city, but it has that small-town feel.”
Miami Gardens is home to St. Thomas University and Florida Memorial University. The Miami Dolphins play at SunLife Stadium in the city and bring thousand of fans into the city’s boundaries.
But despite such high-profile draws, the city lags behind some of its municipal counterparts in North Miami-Dade, such as Doral, which incorporated the same year and has become a bustling hub both for local retail and international business.
City Manager Danny Crew said Miami Gardens has to compete with more affluent cities.
“It’s very difficult to influence markets,” Crew said. “ You can’t say, ‘I want a hotel there,’ and it will come. We can do our homework and try to get them to come.”
Miami Gardens now has a Chili’s and two Wal-Marts, and recently added a Mercedes-Benz dealership to its commercial roster.
But a common complaint among local business owners is that even with the national names, few come from outside Miami Gardens to spend their money — even those thousands who pour in for Dolphin games and concerts at the stadium.