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3/13/09 - Miami Herald

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Overtown action inches Florida Marlins stadium forward

BY CHARLES RABIN
crabin@MiamiHerald.com

The Florida Marlins inched closer to the permanent home they crave -- and a needy community is headed toward a long-awaited financial jolt -- after a unanimous Miami commission vote Thursday to expand the life of an Overtown special taxing district.

On the surface, the expansion of the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency district and construction of a Little Havana baseball stadium have little in common.

In fact, commissioners barely mentioned baseball Thursday during a 90-minute discussion on the inner-city neighborhood.

But the redevelopment evolved into an unexpected stumbling block for the proposed stadium after Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones emerged from a month long maternity leave with the struggling neighborhood on her mind.

Spence-Jones said that in order for the Marlins to get her vote, her district would have to receive millions of dollars that an expansion could bring. Because she is a potential swing vote when the stadium comes before the city for final approval March 19, her words carried significance.

The commissioner said she was merely asking for what had been promised in December 2007, when Miami and Miami-Dade leaders announced plans for $3 billion worth of downtown Miami public works projects and a ballpark for the Marlins. That blueprint included improvements for Overtown.

''We want to make sure we leave a legacy to the Overtown residents,'' Spence-Jones said Thursday, to muted applause from those in attendance.

The legacy will not be as large as originally envisioned.

Miami Chief Financial Officer Larry Spring had projected that growing the district would create more than $600 million in new money.

Of that, $326 million would remain in the CRA boundary to help with affordable housing, infrastructure upgrades, historic preservation and business improvements.

The economy has brought that number down. Now city leaders expect $106 million to $140 million would stay in the district, Spring reported Thursday.

''For me to sit here and tell you you're going to get $500 million, I'd be lying,'' said Commission Chairman Joe Sanchez.

Said Spring: ``I tried to make it crystal clear that those were forecasts that needed to be updated. . . . We continue to work on the forecast. It's an onerous task.''

Commissioners agreed to grow the special taxing district and extend its life span by 13 years, to 2030. The new boundaries would run roughly from Northwest Fifth to 22nd Streets on the south and north, and Northwest Third and Seventh Avenues on the east and west.

With Thursday's vote, the issue now heads to a series of planning boards and ultimately Miami-Dade commissioners, who must accept the city's finding of blight before any money is seen. Winding through that maze could take up to a year.

Now the looming question is whether approval of the Overtown expansion will affect final votes on the stadium.

Spence-Jones' demand last month threw a wrench into already strained ballpark negotiations. A few days later, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez lashed out at elected leaders for playing politics over issues that he said were unrelated to the ballpark.

Spence-Jones later met with Alvarez and County Commission Chairman Dennis Moss, both stadium backers. She said they agreed to push the CRA expansion through at the county level.

Now Spence-Jones is a likely ''yes'' vote on the stadium when city commissioners take up the final contract and parking issues next week. The Miami-Dade Commission could then cement the deal March 23.