Letter to the Editor

Dear University Community,

A few days ago The Miami Herald reported on the controversy surrounding the UM life science park center. One UM student asked “Are we vultures, predators, waiting to capitalize on the misfortune of others?”

Read it here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/03/06/2128930/um-biotech-building-nears completion.html#ixzz4OaM8qTvt

He is concerned for good reason. Alisha, a young single mother, desperately needs a job to help support her four children. She lives in Overtown, where unemployment is over fifty percent and the median income a mere $14,000/yr(1). She was thrilled when the construction of the University of Miami Life Science and Technology Park began in her backyard. Everyday for weeks she would walk down the block to the construction site. However, like many other residents of Overtown, she was turned away without even an application.

The developer of this 8.6 acre facility hired a construction company based in Ft. Lauderdale with no local hiring process. Claims that 34% of the workforce comes from Overtown and the surrounding areas refer to eleven zip codes(2) – only one of those zip codes actually covers the Overtown area(3). UM’s verbal commitment to provide construction jobs to Overtown is securing the facility over $100 million in public monies: a $60 million American Recovery Act Bond, a $25 million Miami-Dade county grant, Florida Enterprise Zone tax incentives, $8.33 million in New Markets Tax Credits and an estimated $8 million from Overtown’s CRA(4).  In order to receive eight million from the new markets tax credits program, the developer was required to distribute $700,000 of it to non-profits. However, many of the grants were distributed to Wynwood and other areas providing little investment back to Overtown. All of these sources of financing are specifically earmarked to revitalize low-income areas.

Over the past three years, hundreds of Overtown residents and political leaders have expressed frustration that this facility is leveraging their community’s poverty for public funding, while refusing to make a commitment to engage with local political leaders and residents(5). Thousands of  Miami-Dade residents, UM students and faculty have signed petitions in support of Overtown.

Now construction of the first stage is near completion, and the job-training program that was promised three years ago is yet to be developed. Overtown’s high school graduation rates are estimated around fifty percent, and only 3.5%(6) of the population over the age of 25 holds a bachelor’s degree. In order to develop a pathway for long-term employment, the area’s educational obstacles must be addressed. It is only fair that the millions of dollars Overtown is investing in this project go directly to ensuring local residents directly and tangibly benefit from this facility in the long-term. Wexford, the park’s developer, has constructed biotechnology parks across the country. In order to access inexpensive public land and public funds, they most often develop in low-income communities(7). Research indicates impoverished residents have given up their precious resources and received only empty promises in return. Four years after a biotechnology facility was built with the University of Maryland, reports surfaced that only 2.5% of the workforce was local and hundreds of low-income families had been displaced by the facility.

Fortunately there is a community driven and sustainable solution. Across the nation, developers are signing community benefits agreements with groups of local residents, political leaders, and organizations to guarantee tangible and mutual benefits.  Only by outlining scholarships, job hiring processes, housing assistance to mitigate displacement and training programs in a legally binding document can developers justify taking land and tax dollars from a low-income area.

Alisha and other Overtown residents need more than hope – they need a legal document to hold UM accountable.

-Concerned University of Miami Undergraduate, Graduate, Law and Medical Students and Faculty