The Overtown Alliance and dozens of residents met face to face with representatives of the University of Miami and county and city commissioners on Tuesday afternoon at Williams Park Community Center to deliver a message: We want jobs.

UM, a private university, has partnered with developer Wexford Miami LLC to build the first phase of a 252,000-square-foot, six-story Life Science & Technology Park in Overtown, a historically black Miami community.

More than 100 people marched five blocks from the construction site to the community center to demand UM and Wexford sign a “terms of engagement” agreement to begin a negotiation process between project stakeholders. Denise Perry — the executive director of Power U Center, a member of the Overtown Alliance — said the document stipulates that “residents, the alliance and UM/Wexford agree to meet, in Overtown, at least once a month and focus on four components of a sustainable community benefits agreement: land and housing, health, education and employment.”

The UM website says the park is “a privately funded endeavor,” but the university has been actively seeking public moneys. In a press release, the Overtown Alliance, made up of 12 organizations and churches that represent the neighborhood, explained how UM/Wexford have been in the process of applying for public money: “Wexford Miami LLC has been issued a $60 million tax-free stimulus bond from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and are now waiting for the outcome of the June 8 vote in the Miami-Dade County Commission.”

According to the Miami-Dade memo that authorized the bonds, Wexford and its affiliates “have planned, developed/redeveloped, financed, constructed and leased over 1.5 million square feet of commercial space, a majority of which is highly specialized life-science and support office space for major universities.”

UM and Wexford are also seeking $25 million in general obligation bonds from the city of Miami and $8.3 million of federal money granted through the New Markets Tax Credit program, and are waiting for another $10 million from the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

UM says the science park “will serve as a catalyst that fosters new scientific discoveries, builds commercially viable enterprises and fuels the economic growth of the South Florida community.” But community residents are skeptical.

“We want not only jobs, but sustainable opportunities and fulfillment of promises,” said Bishop James Dean Adams, the pastor of St. John’s Baptist Church and an alliance member, when he addressed residents and UM representatives at the Tuesday meeting. “We have had it taking your word. We need something in writing.”

The chaplain of UM’s Episcopal Student Chapel, Father Frank Corbishely, marched to “support residents of Overtown and UM students who are here so changes in the neighborhood help the people of the neighborhood.”

Felicia Thomas, a resident and mother of four, spoke of her frustration: “Every time I go to the construction site right by my house they tell me, ‘We are not taking applications at this time.’”

Other residents echoed the demand for jobs. Adams said, “So far only nine people from Overtown have been hired to work on the construction project — up to 1,200 construction jobs will be created during the construction of this new building.”

“At this point there are only 100 workers on the construction site, and 1,200 is a projection of the total of workers needed throughout this construction,” countered Rudy Fernandez, UM’s vice president for government affairs. The Life Science & Technology Park is slated to open in the first quarter of 2011.

Bill Diggs, a former resident of Overtown and a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, told the audience the chamber is committed to making sure that “black-owned construction businesses will represent 15 percent of this process.”

UM representatives at the meeting did not say anything supporting or opposing the issues brought up by other speakers. “We are making progress,” Fernandez said addressing the audience. A copy of the terms of engagement sat at the front of the room but UM did not sign on. According to Perry, the meeting was the second time the alliance has presented its terms to UM.

[Pic by Marcos Restrepo]

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