Going Postal

The county's decision to spend big bucks on a shiny new federal post office has advocates of the poor hopping mad

Sunlight glints off the shiny red, yellow, and blue facade of the county's newest post office in one of its most rundown neighborhoods. Inside, however, the sun's bright rays fade onto the muted blues and grays of the tiled floor. Like the building itself, Fort Lauderdale's plan to spark revitalization of NW Seventh Avenue with a new post office is clear on the outside but murky on the inside.

Sure, the post office may attract bodies to this rundown area. And it may even encourage businesses to sprout along this four-lane thoroughfare. But this post office, unlike most, will not service the people who live around it. And this federal building, unlike most, was built with city grants -- more than a million dollars of which normally goes to pay for low-income housing, water and sewer improvements, and job creation in minority neighborhoods.

"To me it's just an awful misuse," says Janet Riley, an attorney with Legal Aid Service of Broward County, an agency that represents the poor. "You can take that million dollars and start businesses, help people in the community foster new businesses, provide more low-income housing. I wonder, is that [post office] the best use of the money?"

Fort Lauderdale politicians think so. They not only supported springing for the construction, they agreed to a 30-year lease with the U.S. Postal Service for about 50 percent less than the going annual-rental rate, says Mayor Jim Naugle. The city apparently did what it needed to do to convince the Postal Service to scoot off its former downtown home, a piece of prime real estate on the New River where the city wants to build its newest tourist-friendly development, the New World Aquarium.

"A million dollars is a lot of convincing," Riley quips.
Fort Lauderdale receives about $2.8 million a year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)'s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. About a million of that is dedicated each year to supporting single-family home construction in places like Dorsey Heights, just north of Broward Boulevard between NW Seventh Avenue and NW Fifteenth Avenue.

But over the past year, the city spent $1,159,276 of that grant money to help pay for construction of the U.S. post office at 400 NW Seventh Ave. and to clear the land and water underneath of chemical contaminants and underground fuel tanks. (The city borrowed the remaining $1,850,000 in construction costs from the Sunshine State Governmental Finance Commission, a state group that gives low-rate mortgages to governments.)

City officials insist that picking up the tab for a post office is a legitimate, appropriate use for community redevelopment grants because it will spur economic growth in an area that was not attractive to developers.

"I see it as a tremendously positive thing to have that as an anchor on that corridor," Naugle says. "Government has to invest where the public sector will not."

Naugle claims the city can use the post office as a selling point to attract other businesses such as a major grocery chain or drugstore. The city asked developers at least twice for ideas but didn't get the kinds of projects it had hoped for.

A few years ago, Milton Jones of Jones Development Corporation, a minority-owned firm in Fort Lauderdale, proposed a project for that property that would have included a post office and small-scale retail shops, but the city rejected it.

"The city elected to take it back and get into the development business itself," Jones says. "It was one of those city deals."

Although Naugle supports having the post office on NW Seventh Avenue, he criticized the negotiations that gave the U.S. Postal Service a "sweetheart deal."

"We got the shaft," Naugle says. "We gave them much too good of terms."
But the momentum behind getting Fort Lauderdale its own aquarium was too hot, and the U.S. Postal Service had to be convinced to move sooner rather than later. Fundraising for the aquarium could not begin until a location was chosen. So city politicians picked the post office property, and suddenly this local downtown redevelopment issue became a political movement that called upon the powers in Washington for help.

U.S. Congressman E. Clay Shaw, Jr., a former Fort Lauderdale commissioner, provided the clout.

"Shaw worked real hard to get that post office moved," says Sherri Kimbel, executive director of the New World Aquarium. "It took somebody in Washington to nudge the post office."

It also took a few carrots, including an offer to foot the $3 million construction bill for a brand-new, 24,000-square-foot building. "We wanted the post office moved from the old site and there was ten years left on the lease," says Chuck Adams, the city's redevelopment services director. "That was part of the arrangement made to get the post office to move to that site."

The building of new post offices is usually handled by the federal government. It will acquire a piece of property, either through purchase or lease; ask for construction bids; and pay for construction from its own revenues. Or the post office will move into an existing building, as it did on New River, and convert it for postal use, again at its own expense.

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