The controversy over the future of a popular Overtown farmer’s market widened Thursday, when Miami Commissioner Richard P. Dunn II denied he is friends with a Liberty City man looking to partner with the market operator, who gets public money to run the project.
Dunn said he supports the joint venture between Liberty City chef John Townson and local historian and Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn, who has been running Roots in the City, a popular farmers’ market and training center, for three years.
But the commissioner said he’s not “a friend” of Townson’s, and criticized a Miami Herald story on Thursday that he says makes it appear he’s supporting Townson because of a personal relationship. “I have been sullied in the paper,” Commissioner Dunn — who is not related to Marvin Dunn — said at an impromptu press conference in front of Miami City Hall.
Dunn said he’s known Townson “for years,’’ but he doesn’t consider him anything more than “a social friend” — not a personal friend with whom he’d spend time or know closely. Townson told The Herald Thursday he considers the commissioner a friend, but agreed the relationship is not close.
The Herald story, which ran on the front page Thursday, said Townson and Commissioner Dunn are friends, that Townson has attended services conducted by the Rev. Dunn, and that the Liberty City chef has campaigned for the commissioner. Townson made those assertions to a Herald reporter on Wednesday.
Commissioner Dunn said none of it is true.
“It’s as far from the truth as we are from the moon,” he said. “I’m deeply offended by the deliberate innuendo. . . . Never, ever, have I seen Mr. Townson at any of my services. . . . I don’t have his cell phone number, and I don’t know where he lives.”
The farmers market flap began with an attempt by Commissioner Dunn to get Professor Dunn to join forces with the Liberty City chef. Commissioner Dunn says the city isn’t getting enough return on its $100,000 yearly investment in Roots in the City, which runs a farmers’ market and training center. The commissioner and the professor differ over the number of students who have found full-time work. Either way the number is small, fewer than 10 people since the program began.
Professor Dunn is also asking for more money to grow the farmers market. The money comes from the Community Redevelopment Agency for the district, which Commissioner Dunn chairs. The commissioner said he believes that if the professor joins forces with the chef, it will mean more people will be trained and find full-time employment. Townson hopes to build a commissary that would cook and sell the food raised by Roots in the City.
The popular market has helped revitalize a once-dilapidated three-block stretch of Overtown’s Northwest Third Avenue. The market grows fruits and vegetables on three lots near Tenth Street.
The big sticking point: Professor Dunn said he wants nothing to do with Townson, who also runs a small produce hut and vegetable garden in Liberty City funded by a federal grant. Professor Dunn has been seeking more money and believes Dunn is stalling the process. The market’s contract with the CRA expires April 26.
After meeting with Townson this week, Professor Dunn told The Herald he believes the deal is being pushed by politics.
On Thursday, Townson reiterated that he feels Commissioner Dunn is “a friend,” though he added he wants to distance himself from the controversy. He characterized the relationship as not overly personal.
“We don’t have dinner together,’’ Townson said. “I don’t go out with the commissioner, but I respect him as a pastor and a commissioner.”
The chef said he has attended services “in the church he’s preached at” — something the commissioner denies. As to the question of campaigning, Townson said he’s never carried signs or walked streets in support of the commissioner, adding his work was limited to “my circle where I travel, I say I support Commissioner Dunn.”