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Around the State- Southeast- July 2000

The Other Side of Paradise
Key West's long-neglected black community is the focus of a redevelopment plan.

By David Villano

Twenty-five years ago, Key West businessman Ed Swift looked at the boarded-up shops and crumbling storefronts along Duval Street, the city's main drag, and saw gold. Since then, his company, Old Town Key West Development, has been leading the transformation of the historic district into party town. But with locals complaining about exorbitant rents and tourists turned off by all the chain stores and T-shirt shops, Duval has begun losing favor, and Swift is turning his attention a few blocks away to the island's long-neglected black community, Bahama Village.

Three years ago, Swift and a group of investors began acquiring and renovating vacant properties in the area. The group hopes to lease at least 70% of the space to black business owners eager to tap into the tourist economy. As of May, six new businesses had been launched, including an art gallery, a gift shop and a Caribbean restaurant. Swift believes the area's cultural heritage and authentic island charm can be a tourist draw. "This is the last true Key West conch community," says Swift, who is also president of Historic Tours of America, the operator of Key West's Conch Tour Train and trolley tours in four other cities. "It's the only untouched historic village we have left."

For that reason, Swift hopes the area's black residents and property owners will follow his lead. If they don't, others will, and much of Bahama Village could fall into the hands of off-island speculators and other absentee landlords. That, he fears, would destroy its greatest draw: its distinctive island culture.

To encourage black-owned startups, Swift is helping to evaluate business plans and has co-signed bank loans for some tenants. Lease rates at his 3,800-sq.-ft. Bahama Market Village retail center at the corner of Petronia and Whitehead streets -- just down the street from Duval -- are offered at a steep discount, he says. He's also enlisted a local black businessman, Norman Moodie, as a minority partner and would-be mentor to black entrepreneurs. And to bring in customers, Swift instructed the Conch Tour Train to detour through Bahama Village.

But Swift's goodwill may not be enough. Moodie, who owns and operates the nearby Caribbean House hotel, says few island blacks are taking advantage of the opportunity. About half of the retail space at Bahama Village Market remains empty.

Community activist Norma Jean Sawyer, a fourth-generation island resident, blames a lack of capital, not enthusiasm, for the reluctance. Island living is so costly that few working-class residents -- black or white -- can afford to quit their jobs and invest in a startup. What's more, she adds, there is little tradition of black entrepreneurship in the Florida Keys. Few role models exist. "We know redevelopment will come, but I'm not sure the African-American community is prepared to be part of that," Sawyer says.

Swift, who moved to Key West in 1960, is undaunted. "Changing Duval Street was a long, hard process. And we expect this to be another long, hard process. But I know it's the right way to go."

In the News

Boca Raton -- Nutritional aids maker Rexall Sundown (Nasdaq-RXSD) has agreed to a buyout offer from Netherlands-based Royal Numico, the world's largest maker of vitamins and nutritional supplements. The deal is worth about $1.8 billion in cash and assumed debt. Rexall has been the target of recent consumer complaints over its marketing practices and a controversial cellulite-reducing product, Cellasene.

Deerfield Beach -- Link Worldwide, the troubled Deerfield Beach-based startup with dreams of competing with Federal Express, UPS and others in the delivery industry, has ceased operations. The privately held firm came under fire this year for bouncing checks to employees and failing to pay its vendors.

Fort Lauderdale -- Health Express USA (OTC-HEXS), which hopes to launch a nationwide chain of fast-food restaurants targeting health-conscious consumers, has opened its first outlet. The company's Healthy Bites Grill, which features fresh juices, smoothies, vegetarian burgers and organic produce, is on Commercial Boulevard just north of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Two more Florida outlets -- in south Florida and Tampa -- will open later this year.

Giving a boost to Broward's international trade sector, Fort Lauderdale has created a 1,200-acre Foreign Trade Zone, replacing the 200-acre zone at Port Everglades. The new zone, comprising seven satellite locations throughout the county, will exempt shippers, warehouse operators and others from import duties on foreign goods.

Juno Beach -- Iberdrola SA, Spain's second-largest electric utility, has broken off merger talks with FPL Group, the parent company of Florida Power & Light. Analysts say Iberdrola was unwilling to take on as much as $9 billion in debt to complete the deal.

Miami -- CHS Electronics (NYSE-CHSW), which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April, will liquidate its assets rather than reorganize as a slimmed-down company. It is a humbling end for the computer-products distributor, which only two years ago ranked in the Fortune 500. In 1999, accounting irregularities at the company's European subsidiary triggered a federal investigation, sending the company's stock into a tailspin.

Buoyed by an increase in international visitors, Miami-Dade recorded the highest hotel occupancy rate in the nation (80%) during the first quarter of 2000. During the same period, the county's average room rate ($133 per night) ranked third nationally behind New York and San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Airport West area near Miami International Airport is the site of South Florida's newest luxury hotel, the $35-million, 150-room Intercontinental Hotel. The hotel's unlikely location amid nondescript warehouses and strip malls is a testament to Miami's importance as a center for trade and international commerce.

Barry University has been named one of five institutions in the nation to receive a $120,000 grant from Microsoft Corp. to help it better serve the region's Hispanic community. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities administered the grant. Barry also will be eligible to receive about $750,000 worth of Microsoft software.

Avborne Heavy Maintenance will add 170 jobs over the next two years, bringing its total full-time workforce to 700. The new positions will
allow the company to fully staff its recently opened repair and overhaul hangar at Miami International Airport. The new hangar is the largest of its kind in the southeastern U.S.

The Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's economic development agency, helped create more than 3,300 jobs in the county in the seven months that ended May 1. The total accounts for 90% of the agency's 12-month goal. Overall, countywide job creation for 2000 is projected to top 20,000.

Miramar -- Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises (NYSE: RCL) has signed a 15-year lease for 90,000 square feet of office space now under construction off I-75 in Miramar. Officials say the facility is for expansion only, stressing that none of the company's 2,500 downtown Miami workers will be relocated.

Doped Up
Between 1993 and 1997, the Fort Lauderdale area experienced the largest increase in the nation in male arrestees testing positive for an illegal drug, increasing from below the national average in 1993 to above the national average in 1997. In 1998, there was a significantly high percentage for those testing positive for all drugs, 74.4%, as well as for those testing positive for cocaine, 50.2%, placing Fort Lauderdale second among the five-highest cities in both categories. Miami was close behind in the percentage of male arrestees under the influence of cocaine.