Mayor’s race a major milestone for Miami Gardens

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.

It didn’t.

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.

“SunLife is an entity into itself. They do marketing and events for SunLife. It just happens to be placed in Miami Gardens,” said Gibson.

In addition to the mayor’s race, five candidates are competing for two council seats in the Aug. 14 election.

Whoever leads the city will have to contend with shrinking revenues and plummeting home values.

While Miami Gardens never saw the freefalling property values that plagued cities such as Homestead — largely due to the fact that the city never attracted the wild-eyed development at the height of the real estate boom — home values have been on a steady decline in recent years. Values dropped another 5 percent this year, according to the county property appraiser’s.

To shore up the shrinking tax base, council members had to resort to a double-digit tax rate increase this fiscal year.

At a September budget hearing, facing irate residents, Gibson — known as a straight-talker — scolded them from the dais saying the tax rate increase was necessary.

"There is nothing black folks have ever had if it wasn’t for sacrifices, " Gibson told city residents . "Stop having a poor mindset. I would never spend your cash unwisely."

Crew called Gibson’s style direct

“When we needed funds to do something and we had to raise taxes, the council did it. That takes a lot of fortitude by an elected officials because no one want to raise taxes,” Crew said.

The proposed tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, is slightly lower at $6.36.

Austerity measures include eliminating vacant positions, halting contributions to employee retirement plans and doing away with raises.

Recently, the city broke ground on a new, $42 million government complex that includes a new City Hall — Miami Gardens has been renting space in a strip mall — and a new police headquarters.

“This area was all these fractured communities. We never had that cohesive glue that pulled us together. The city of Miami Gardens did that,” Gibson said in an interview.

The city’s signature event is Jazz in the Gardens. The two-day music fest draws more than 45,000 concert goers from around the country and the Caribbean.

But the event has its critics. With a growing sentiment among residents that the city is not safe, Councilman Williams said the money for Jazz in the Gardens could be better used in the police department.

“We don’t devote enough resources for our police officers, yet we allocate millions to Jazz in the Gardens,” said Williams who is running for mayor. “That is a luxury we can’t afford.”

Williams recommends having a private entity take over the city-sponsored event to free up municipal dollars.

Miami Gardens, a working class city of roughly 107,000, has also had to contend with a fair amount of bad public relations.

Even Gibson, arguably the city’s most passionate defender, acknowledged what she called a branding problem at a recent city meeting.

Though overall crime is down in the city by a third since 2003, a spate of recent shooting and murders have residents on edge. At council meetings, residents complain about the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. From January to June, Miami Gardens had eight homicides in its boundaries, according to Miami Gardens police. That number is higher now.

On July 24, Carol City High school football player Paul Royal, 18, was killed as he sat in his car in front of his friend’s house. That same day, Heather Young, 26, was walking when she was approached from behind and shot several times in the head and torso.

Fatimah Albergottie, a Carol City teacher pleaded with the council to do something about the senseless killings at a July 25 meeting. Royal was one of her students.

“I really can’t attend any more funerals,” she said.

Gibson, in an interview, said a pervasive no-snitching culture is partly to blame.

“It’s a community problem,” she said. “It’s the kids who don’t get the right parenting and the right education who are reeking havoc on our community. It’s an issue for all of us.”

Miami Gardens ranked second in the county in murders per capita over the last two years, neighboring Opa-locka No. 1, according to statistics compiled by Miami Gardens police.

But other categories of crime, including sexual assault, robbery and auto theft, have gone down.

Neighborhood Crime Watches now number 35, compared to a handful just a few years ago.

And optimism abounds from longtime residents who say despite its shortfalls, the city has come a long way in its first decade.

“ I can see where the changes have taken place. We never felt secure in our own neighborhood before,” said Janet Hall, a 10-year resident. “I will never move to Pembroke Pines or none of those neighborhoods. Change is here in Miami Gardens.”