Business

Take mission to the streets, DDA critics say

Nearly five years ago, Miami internal auditor Victor Igwe suggested that a city agency charged with revitalizing downtown could save up to $91,000 a year by moving out of its rented office space in one of downtown's most expensive high-rises.

Igwe's suggestion for Miami's Downtown Development Authority went nowhere. Then-City Commissioner and DDA Chairman Johnny Winton later said, "It isn't his role to determine whether or not we should have cheaper office space."

Nowadays, the DDA does occupy new space -- it spent about $200,000 in 2004 to haul its headquarters up to nicer, larger offices on a higher floor of the same high-rise, with extraordinary views. Its annual rent has doubled since the audit, from about $125,000 to about $250,000.

DDA Executive Director Dana Nottingham offers no apologies. One of the agency's jobs is to convince sophisticated, deep-pocketed bigwigs to spend millions downtown, he said -- and having panoramic city views helps.

But if the DDA's image is well-tended -- complete with sponsorships of cultural events and membership in an exclusive dining club -- the same can't be said for Miami's central business district. It's a place of "broken curbs, collapsed sidewalks and garbage-strewn empty lots, " in the words of one frustrated CEO earlier this summer.

STREET LEVEL

Now, government and business leaders are questioning whether the DDA, which is funded by an extra tax on downtown properties -- 50 cents for every $1,000 of value -- should be spending more of its roughly $4 million annual budget at the curbside level.

Said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes much of downtown: "The DDA should really get its head out of the 29th floor and onto the street, where they belong. And start improving the street."

The DDA's official mission is to coordinate downtown improvement efforts among local, state and federal agencies -- not to improve each sidewalk and street itself. In part, that's because the DDA doesn't collect enough money to do much rebuilding. In recent years, the agency has also spent its energies on business recruiting, improving quality of life and drawing redevelopment plans.

UNUSUAL SPENDING

But some of its lesser spending is unusual for a public agency. The DDA, which has 19 staff members, spent an average of more than $28,000 a year during the past five years on new computer equipment and software, records show. That's enough to buy every staff member a new $1,400 PC every year.

Nottingham says the computer expenses tie in directly with the DDA's function as an information clearinghouse.

And then there's the DDA's membership in the exclusive Miami City Club restaurant. Nottingham says the DDA's City Club membership is used "very sparingly." Some meals at the members-only club involve the agency's business-recruitment function, but not all do.

When it comes to business recruiting, the DDA has had many successes, Nottingham said, including the arrival of Barnie's Coffee & Tea across from Flagler Street's Gusman Theater. The coffeehouse received $25,300 in grant money from the DDA. Downtown's recent condo boom has also been made possible, in part, by the DDA, he said, as high-rise developers have used the DDA's research data for many purposes.

Yet, some wonder whether the agency should narrow its focus -- particularly in the wake of a June speech that Macy's Florida Chairman Julie Greiner gave to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. Greiner criticized the state of downtown -- its "broken curbs" and other flaws -- and drew applause.

The DDA helped plan and design the installation of new sidewalks and other street improvements to the heart of Flagler Street -- right outside Macy's doorstep. But the workmanship of the $15.7 million effort, done in conjunction with Miami's Capital Improvements Department, has received a lukewarm response at best.

Going forward, if Miami Mayor Manny Diaz has his way, the DDA would focus less on marketing downtown and more on infrastructure upgrades such as sidewalks. Diaz is proposing that Miami borrow against the agency's steady stream of income -- perhaps netting tens of millions of dollars up front that could fund improvements for streets and sidewalks.

His plan may hold some sway. Commissioner Joe Sanchez, who chairs the agency, said he's receptive to the mayor's suggestions. The DDA, like downtown as a whole, is going through a transition, he said. Its new focus is less on luring big buildings, and more on making streets cleaner and more welcoming, he said.

  Comments