Florida Keys News
Friday, December 6, 2013
$360K in TIF money sought
Nonprofits want piece of tax pie

A cultural festival, Habitat for Humanity, a local homeowner, two churches and Key West High School presented applications Thursday for some of the $456,000 available from a distinct city property-tax fund.

Six applicants are seeking a total of $358,389 from the city's Bahama Village Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund for 2014.

The largest request was $85,000 from the Key West Africana Festival, which held its inaugural event in June, while the smallest came from the Bethel AME Church, which wants $20,998 for a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in its parsonage and fellowship hall.

The Key West City Commission has the final say in doling out the TIF funds for Bahama Village improvement projects or new programs.

But the appointed Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee first reviews the requests and makes recommendations.

City staff expects the commission to approve the grants by February.

The advisory committee's next meeting is Jan. 2.

Committee members the Rev. Randy Becker, Clifford Mingo, Rudy Rivas, Patricia Eables, Annette Mobley and Chairman Aaron Castillo spent most of Thursday's 1.5-hour meeting listening.

Except for Bethel AME, the applicants sent a representative to Old City Hall to make a pitch.

One of the new entries for TIF money is the second annual Key West Africana Festival, whose organizers are asking for $85,000.

The festival seeks to draw cultural tourists to see Key West's Afro-Caribbean heritage, such as the island's African cemetery at Higgs Beach and the salvaged Henrietta Marie slave ship exhibit at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

The African cemetery is one "extraordinary artifact," said festival director Christopher Norwood of Miami Lakes.

This year's inaugural festival, held downtown June 13-16, was sponsored in part by Bacardi and local backers, including Rick's, La Concha hotel, the Mel Fisher Museum, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and the San Carlos Institute.

Last year's keynote speaker, the author and academic Michael Eric Dyson, paid for his own airfare and hotel room to attend the event, said Norwood.

"I put a lot of my own personal money into it," Norwood told the committee. "We believe we will at least double our participation and have the funding to do a lot more things."

But the $85,000 would mostly pay for training 10 Bahama Village residents as vendors or entrepreneurs, and training 50 teachers or community leaders in "Cultural Competency," according to the application.

In addition, $20,000 of the grant would pay for national advertising of Key West's African-American cultural artifacts.

For example, Norwood said, vendors could be sought to participate in the festival.

"We couldn't find a T-shirt about the African cemetery up and down Duval Street," said Norwood. "There could be some vendors that focus on these artifacts."

Land-trust scandal

Another request for TIF money came from a Key West family that claims to be in financial limbo due in part to the demise of the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust (BCCLT).

The Edwards family is asking for $70,000 from the city to complete a total $170,000 reconstruction of their home at 213 Petronia St.

"The home has been vacant since 2007, its family displaced," the application said.

The one-story Conch house is owned by the Edwards family, which has lived in Bahama Village for generations, while the land beneath it is now owned by the Key West Housing Authority.

Both the city's Historic Architectural Review Commission and the housing authority have approved plans for renovations.

"Renovation plans were stalled for lack of funding," the application said. "The project will reduce blight by refurbishment of a derelict structure into an attractive, energy efficient home."

Attorney Hugh Morgan spoke Thursday on behalf of the family, which is willing to match the city's grant with $100,000 of its own money.

"It's the poster home for blight," Morgan said. "Over a decade ago I agreed to represent the family for the purpose of saving the home."

Committee members were familiar with the Petronia Street home, said Chairman Castillo.

"My heart goes out to the family," Castillo said. "That's one of the land trust properties. I don't want to elaborate on the past -- let's move to the future."

BCCLT's mission was to sell affordable homes in the predominately black Bahama Village neighborhood.

In March 2012, Assistant State Attorney Mark Wilson convinced jurors that the nonprofit's head, Norma Jean Sawyer, misspent at least $200,000 -- of a $750,000 state grant BCCLT had been awarded -- on day-to-day operations, a new office for the nonprofit, as well as dinners and a charter fishing trip for her and her assistant, who was her boyfriend at the time.

The grant was supposed to be restricted to home renovation work.

Eugene Edwards, Yvonne Edwards and Francina Edwards remain in limbo.

Sawyer was released from prison Nov. 30 and remains on supervised parole in Jacksonville, according to state Department of Corrections records.

Other applications considered by the committee Thursday were for:

• Key West High School

Request: $45,201

The funding would create a "Green Jobs and Futures" program at the high school. Students would help provide energy- and water-efficient renovations to single-family homes in Bahama Village, the application said.

• Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Keys

Request: $75,000

The nonprofit is again asking for money to fund its construction program, which provides free repairs for elderly homeowners and others who qualify in Bahama Village.

• Newman United

Methodist Church

Request: $62,190

This request is to fund the final phase of a three-year renovation project totaling about $231,141. This year, the church plans to repair concrete and paint white the entire 127-year-old church building at 410 Truman Ave.

"The restoration is needed to preserve a corner of old Key West," said the application, signed by the church's board chairman, Donald Carey. "It is one of the most wonderful spaces in Key West, in terms of the light and the windows and the ambience of the structure itself."


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