hashim-benford_web.jpgThere is a troublesome monkey business going on in the wilds of Jungle Island; and I’m not talking about those adorable orangutans. 

I’m referring to the back flips the city is performing to finance yet another bad deal.  Since its construction on Watson Island, this theme park, which morphed into little more than an obscure banquet hall, has been unable to turn a profit.  And now, Miami city commissioners have voted to loan Jungle Island $800,000 in public money to help pay the attraction’s property taxes.

This is worse than borrowing from Peter to pay Paul; this is borrowing from Peter to pay Peter. While thousands in South Florida face foreclosure with little hope of getting assistance from either the public or the private sector, our local governments continue to funnel public money into corporate pockets.

These high jinks are prophetic for South Florida. Just several weeks before news of this Jungle Island deal broke, the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County pledged over $600 million for a new Marlins stadium.  I can see the future headlines now, “City and County Commissioners hustle to secure new funding for the failing Marlins stadium” and “Local taxpayers stuck with the bill on another ill-planned project.”

It isn’t enough, though, to just sit around and complain about these debacles. It isn’t enough to just have the foresight to know what is going to happen.  The future of South Florida is not written in stone, and there is tremendous opportunity to lay foundations for a brighter future.

While the current economic situation is bleak, I am struck by the immense opportunity of the present moment.

Now is the time to promote smart development and investment in infrastructures that serve the residents of our city.  The federal stimulus package will pump billions of dollars into communities around the country.  These dollars should be used to develop programs that meet and support the needs of our people. 

They should not be used for more corporate bailouts or pet projects for private interests. We know, however, how money flows in Miami, and it usually is not toward projects that benefit our city’s residents.  So we must be ready to stand up and demand that the money comes our way, to fund initiatives that we need. 

This is not just about providing for people’s needs; this is about investing in what makes sense. And one thing is clear: It doesn’t make any sense for a failing business to get a loan from taxpayers to pay back money it already owes us. 

It does make sense, however, to invest in transportation that will relieve traffic, serve the entire region, and contribute to a greener city. It does make sense to build housing that is accessible to the people hit hardest by this housing crisis, low-income and working class black and Latino families. It makes sense to invest in green job training programs.  It makes sense to weatherize and retrofit every home and business in South Florida. And it makes sense to invest in tourist attractions, such as beaches and parks, that actually serve the interests of residents and industry.

Rather than rely on politicians to get it right, though, let us, the residents of Miami, come together and develop a platform that outlines how we want our city to look and be governed.

This is supposed to be a democracy, and power should be in the hands of the people.  We know that change doesn’t come when we just sit around and wait for it; we have to get out there and make it happen.

So let’s make Jungle Island and the Marlins stadium the last corporate deals cut by our government. Let’s take back Miami and turn it from a jungle where we struggle to survive into a city that reflects our brightest visions and aspirations.

Hashim Benford is an organizer for The Miami Workers Center, a strategy and action center working for racial and economic justice in Miami and beyond.