MIAMI — Overtown residents gathered in the historic Culmer Place Neighborhood Center recently to participate in a town hall meeting with former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning, Miami City Commissioner Richard P. Dunn, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and Shawn Wilson of the Housing Trust Group.
They were there to discuss the future of the community.
The May 3 forum was an opportunity for Mourning and elected officials to address many rumors that have been circulating throughout the area, especially those that followed the March 25 preliminary approval from the Miami City Commission for the neighborhood center to be designated as “restricted commercial.”
The nine-acre site at Northwest 16th Street and Third Avenue was previously deemed “major institutional, public facilities.” The land-use change caught the attention of many residents who were concerned that the center would either be torn down or utilized for a purpose that would not benefit the community.
Although no plans have been finalized, Mourning and his developers are seeking to modify four of the nine acres to construct a senior facility, a low-to-moderate-income housing complex, an early child care center and retail space for a neighborhood pharmacy or grocery store.
“Imagine leaving your house and walking to a Walgreens or a CVS or a Winn-Dixie,” Mourning said. “You deserve it and your family deserves it. I want you to have the same resources that other communities have.”
Edmonson began the forum by assuring residents that neither the county nor the city has cast a final vote or devised a plan as to how the area would be redeveloped. She noted that the $7.5 million that she had previously secured for renovations to the center, which sits on county land, would remain.
“We are here to get feedback from the community. It is important to bring together the residents, stakeholders and all those who have an interest in Overtown so we can hear your suggestions,” Edmonson said. “We want to know what it is that you want and we will not finalize any plans without working with you. The Culmer center will remain and the only thing we will do is make it better.”
Dunn echoed Edmonson’s statements about including the community in the process. He vowed that he and Edmonson would continue to work as a team to make positive changes for the residents.
“It is totally imperative for Commissioner Edmonson and myself to work together,” he said. “We won’t let anyone come between us because it is important for us to carry out the work that needs to be done for this community and our residents.”
During the public discussion, longtime Overtown advocate Jackie Bell said she was adamantly against the project, and accused Mourning of trying to “take” the land from the community, which “rightfully” belongs to the Overtown residents.
“We can find you another piece of land. Our history is being torn down and we worked night and day to ensure that this wouldn’t happen,” Bell said.
Mourning addressed Bell’s concerns, which he acknowledged may also be the sentiments of other residents in the area, by stating that he respects the history of the community, and only wants to work with residents to improve their lives.
“You all represent the pulse and passion of this community. I want to preserve the rich history of Overtown and support the children and families,” Mourning said. “The people sitting next to me are passionate about seeing change for the children and families in this community for the better. We want to find a way to create an environment to benefit the masses and stimulate progress. I didn’t come here to take anything from anyone. I brought something here. I spent time and money out of my own pocket. The last thing I want to do is destroy the history of this community.”
Eighty-three-year-old Overtown resident Lovette McGill asked her fellow constituents to support Mourning’s efforts.
“We need to work with the people who want to help this community,” McGill said. “I appreciate Mr. Mourning for what he’s trying to do.”
Resident Rosa Green, 80, said she would like to see a “dinner house” or nightclub in Overtown so residents will have a nice place to commune, and to support black family-friendly businesses.
Denise Perry of Power U, a community organization, suggested that as the panel looks to redevelop, it keeps in mind the numerous vacant lots in Overtown, and makes the project go beyond just the area surrounding the Culmer center.
She also suggested that a committee of Overtown residents should serve as liaisons to ensure transparency in the process, noting that the community has often fallen victim to failed projects and broken promises.
“Work with us to make the community an accountable part of the process,” Perry said. “People need to feel as though they are a real part of the project.”
Within the next four to six weeks, the panel will host another town hall meeting to present a plan, including suggestions that residents made at the forum, for the community to approve.
“I don’t live by false promises,” Mourning said. “Whatever I put my name on, I follow through with it.”
Photo: Alonzo Mourning