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Front Porch Falling Down

STATE'S FRONT PORCH FALLING DOWN

Published: Sunday, April 15, 2001
Section: LOCAL
Page: 1A

By BRITTANY WALLMAN Staff Writer

Front Porch Florida -- the faith- and community-based answer to blight that Gov. Jeb Bush campaigned on -- has faltered in all six of the black communities where it started, neighborhoods whose streets he strolled in the fall of 1999, heralding the new program.

Even the program's supporters say it hasn't set neighborhoods on their way to resolving problems such as high crime rates, bad schools, crummy housing and lack of jobs and investment.

Bush admits his program has stumbled. But he says it has been fixed and will produce tangible results this year. He has asked for another $5.5 million in next year's state budget.

"The first year and a half of the program was marked by two steps forward and one step back, in several communities, it was probably two steps forward, two steps back," Bush said in an e-mail to the Sun-Sentinel, "which is commonplace for startup ventures."

The communities, in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Opa-locka, Pensacola, St. Petersburg and Tallahassee, are being asked to start over after a frustrating year.

None attained the program's goal of becoming an independent engine for change, able to win grants and form partnerships with churches and companies without the state's help.

None completed the key task, the community master plan, putting its goals on paper and forming the basis for everything each program did. Not one of the master plans was accepted by the state, either because of a lack of community input or lack of evidence to support them.

Only one, Pensacola, spent all of its original "seed'' money.

"Like any new thing, it's been a learning situation for all of us," said Jim Bellamy, Tallahassee's Front Porch liaison.

State officials say the fledgling program was overwhelmed by problems it didn't anticipate: local personality clashes, a lack of know-how, not enough training.

"Grass roots means you have people who don't have a clue," said Fort Lauderdale's Front Porch liaison, Deborah Brown Frederick. "They have vision and passion, but they don't know how."

"Unfortunately, we were a little bit slow out of the box," said Alison Hewitt, who Bush assigned to take over the failing program last fall.

West Palm Beach City Commissioner Isaac Robinson Jr. said he thinks the project can work, now that Hewitt is on board.

"I applaud the governor's initiative,'' said Robinson, "because he realized he had to go back and restructure it.''

Loans available

By next year, there will be 20 Front Porch Florida communities.

A Front Porch community is a one- or two-square-mile neighborhood, typically African-American, poor and blighted. The state gives it extra points on grant applications, makes business loans and other help available and awards $50,000 to get started. Each group has a revitalization council elected by community members, and a paid liaison, selected by the state.

The state created an Office of Urban Opportunity to teach the groups to form nonprofit, self-sustaining organizations. The idea was to mother them for one year and then push them out of the nest when they knew how to pursue government grants, work in partnerships with churches and companies, and had built the clout and understanding to work with local government toward improvements. The projects would come from a master plan borne of neighborhood concensus.

West Palm Beach's Northwood/Pleasant City master plan, for example, envisions curbing crime, helping entrepreneurs start small businesses, improving housing and boosting the education and employability of residents, said the program's liaison, Coni Williams.

Robinson said the City Commission would get a Front Porch workshop from Hewitt this month, something he said should have happened long ago. He thinks the city can partner with Front Porch to put a community justice center -- with community police, youth programs, a wellness center -- in the heart of the needy area.

"Right now, I'm excited,'' said Robinson, "as opposed to how I felt the last time.''

Fort Lauderdale's Dorsey Riverbend/Durrs wants to clean up the neighborhood and improve the lives of youth and seniors. It has conducted several volunteer cleanups, set up a computer lab for children and renovated seniors' homes, spending a portion of the available money.

"I'm a senior citizen. I deserve something," said Bennie Jenkins, whose home was tented for termites and her bedroom door replaced. "I'm over 80 years old. I'm bugging them now about fixing my cabinets."

But Hewitt describes a program set up for failure, giving grass-roots community members access to tens of thousands of dollars without training in how to pick a project, solicit bids and spend the money.

It set up a loan program that most small businesses in the target communities couldn't qualify for because of bad credit or insufficient business plans. It aimed to tackle problems like code enforcement and policing but allowed Front Porch groups to carry on in their own orbit, without working with the local governments who could help solve the problems.

Some of the Front Porch groups were hung up by a lack of training in how to run a meeting without letting it dissolve into shouting. In West Palm Beach, the group didn't know how to get enough people involved and couldn't get a quorum at meetings, Hewitt said

The state program underestimated the feuds that would entangle local boards.

In Fort Lauderdale, the Front Porch liaison and the city commissioner representing that community are political enemies, having faced off for a City Commission seat last year. The board is split by supporters of Frederick, the liaison, and those who back Commissioner Carlton Moore.

"I think in general what has happened is that when you have a state program coming into a local area and doing things the local political powers would normally do, or should have done, you're stepping on toes," said Frederick. "It's a territorial thing. I guess in a way it's like walking into a woman's house and cleaning up her kitchen."

Moore blames Frederick's political ambitions.

"She continues to run for the seat trying to use the Front Porch as her platform," said Moore.

Opa-locka's Front Porch community straddles a city with fiscal problems and unincorporated county territory, adding to the number of officials it has to deal with and making its job harder.

By now, the six communities should have been ready to move on without the state's help, said Hewitt. That way the state could focus on five new communities brought into the program last month, including the Riverside neighborhood in Miami's Little Havana.

Program criticized

As the governor seeks $5.5 million in this year's state budget for Front Porch, some legislators are criticizing his program for accomplishing little.

Though Bush said he thinks his budget request, an increase over last year's, will be granted, the draft House and Senate budgets suggest about $2.7 million.

The program has angered some black legislators, already put off by Bush's One Florida initiative that ended race-based preferences in state hiring, contracting and university admissions. They say his renewal program is insincere and doesn't have enough money to make real change happen.

But Bush's program isn't about straight government-to-community help, Hewitt said. It's not about communities always "having their hand out.'' The idea behind Front Porch is to give them a little money to get started, turn the crank and watch them go.

"It's empowering the community to prioritize and then use the money to grow and revitalize," said Rep. Holly Benson, R-Pensacola, who is one of the few white Republicans who represents a Front Porch neighborhood.

Florida's black legislators remain suspect of the Republican governor's plan. They say his unfulfilled Front Porch promise left communities crestfallen.

"We don't want promises to be made that are not going to be fulfilled, just to gain political favor," said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee. " ... If it's not fully funded, I would question the true commitment."

He thinks the program was Bush's move to get votes in the black community, traditionally Democrats.

"I have never had any confidence in the Front Porch program," said Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Broward's delegation leader. "I think it's sad that two years have expired and nothing has been done. I hate it when the government lifts people's spirits and then doesn't follow through."

"Drive down Dorsey Riverbend," said Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "What can you point at and say, ĀThat's Front Porch?'"

No one could say what a sufficient dollar amount would be, but they said funding is the gauge of Bush's sincerity.

Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, D-Miami, said: "The idea is great, if we would just fund it to the tune of coming out with success stories."

Those involved locally say the adversity has made them stronger, though it has cost the program a few liaisons, board members and state officials.

Frederick, who once considered quitting her job as Fort Lauderdale liaison, said she's starting to see people collaborate who never talked to each other before.

She continues to have big dreams for the community and for Front Porch's ability to turn it around.

"In a perfect world, " said Frederick, "we would work ourselves out of the need to exist."

Brittany Wallman can be reached at bwallman@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4541.

Copyright 2001, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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