The Overtown that Bishop James Dean Adams envisions is far more prosperous than how it’s currently perceived.
Overtown in downtown Miami was once revered as a historic center for commerce and the arts for the black community, but has seen a steady decline over the years. With the construction of of Interstate 95, and later Interstate 395, development and growth came to a halt in the 1960s.
Today, Overtown grapples with high crime and unemployment rates.
Despite spurred growth, crime and poverty, Adams, the senior pastor of St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church, says the neighborhood can reclaim its title as “Harlem of the South” — and eventually rise to become something better.
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“Everyday I see business owners, barbers, hairdressers and restaurant owners,” said Adams, 54. “This is the Overtown that we see, and it has so much potential to be greater than what it was.”
Adams, the former associate pastor of the Second Union Baptist Church in San Francisco, moved to Miami five years ago to lead St. John’s, which at 110 years old, stands as one of the city’s historic churches.
The church’s fellowship hall was the place where Adams and more than 100 Overtown residents gathered on Jan. 29 to discuss jobs and fair wages tied to the development of Miami Worldcenter.
Worldcenter, a multimillion dollar project, recently has drawn criticism from residents and social leaders. Adams has become a vocal leader and representative for the Overtown residents, who could potentially be on the losing end if political leaders fail to address their concerns.
In late December, the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) gave the green light for a multi-year subsidy package to ensure that residents would benefit directly throughout the construction and lifespan of Worldcenter, which will include a 765,000-square-foot shopping mall and hundreds of condo and apartment unit.
To approve the deal –– and the $88 million in tax incentives –– Miami Worldcenter agreed to a series of targets such as local hiring, paying set wages for unskilled workers, and seeking local subcontractors. But critics at the meeting complained those targets, negotiated in private between the developers and Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, the CRA board chairman, were unenforceable or insufficiently binding.
“The developer has not agreed to hire from anyone from Overtown,” Adams said. “The [development] agreement only required hiring from Miami-Dade County.”
The project’s December approval, Adams says, denied residents the right for public review or discussion. In January’s meeting, many criticized the board for failing to give proper notice to residents for a meeting the month before.
Recently, the Forbes Company, which partners in the deal, and Worldcenter asked the Miami commission to vote again on the development agreement because of concerns that officials may have botched a procedural issue that could later leave the project vulnerable to lawsuits.
Adams, who acted as a mediator between residents and officials in the meeting, challenged Hardemon, accusing the commissioner of pushing the project forward and not fighting for his constituents.
“The land that we’re talking about over there is blight — not slum, but blight,” Hardemon responded to the crowd. “We need something to enhance the property value so that we can get more tax money.”
“My goal is to put more money in your pocket,” he added.
Adams immediately addressed Hardemon.
“Respectfully, commissioner, thank you for sharing, however, we wouldn't be having this meeting if the community was a part of the negotiation process,” Adams said.
Adams questioned the “professionalism” of city officials and Hardemon’s lack of transparency and accessibility. “We would have told you not to accept that deal if you would have asked us.”
Adams said Hardemon has a history of ignoring residents and that it took “a nasty” note to get the commissioner’s attention.
“It's about time that we have somebody grow the testicles to stand up to these people and tell them, ‘Hell no,’” Adams said.
Adams, who has joined forces with social activists and other religious leaders, says he will continue to advocate for Overtown residents and will look to open the doors of communication with city officials. He says that he’s not oppose to construction, or against Hardemon —Adams endorsed the commissioner during his run for office last year.
Still, Adams says he is worried.
“It concerns me when it appears that there’s a greater consideration given to wealthy developer than to a community that’s in dire need, and seeking to do better,” Adams said.