The People's Republic of Area A

A group of neighborhood leaders prepares to declare independence and start Broward's first black-majority city

Three blocks west of the Broward Sheriff's Office headquarters on Broward Boulevard, a strange-looking building sits far back from the road in the rear of a cracked asphalt lot. In the strong midafternoon daylight, the building's hot pink and purple façade and garish sign ("Ecstasy," in letters of cursive neon) seem painfully bright.

The building used to be a Ponderosa Steak House; now it's a strip club. Two doors down is a day care center run by the Hope Outreach Community Ministry. In fact, from Ecstasy's liquor-bottle-strewn rear parking lot, one can easily see and hear about a dozen kids romping and gallivanting in Hope Ministry's back yard. All that separates the kids from the strippers is a pair of rusty chainlink fences.

Heading west one finds signs like "Available, up to 20,000 square feet" and "Blood Donors... Come on in... No appointment necessary" in between boarded-up storefronts and broken windows.

It's clear that Area A is economically challenged. Long-time residents recall the intersection of Highway 441 and Broward Boulevard as being the commercial center of Area A -- indeed, the central shopping district for much of the county. Thriving strip malls stood on every corner, including the landmark Gateway 7 Mall on the northwest corner, with shops and businesses stretching for blocks down both roads.

But over the last 20 years, this intersection has undergone a dramatic collapse, even as job-creating engines such as Sawgrass Mills Mall and the National Car Rental Center have risen in new cities out west.

Last year Thomas Gotart, a Miami-based real estate consultant, explored the option of purchasing Gateway 7 but bowed out. The venture appeared risky, he says, in part because local residents lack purchasing power. "You know something I learned," he says. "From Davie [Boulevard] to Oakland Park [Boulevard], there's not a single major-chain grocery store between 441 and the interstate. I couldn't figure out how to make the numbers work."

That's precisely the point of those who oppose incorporation. Beyond all the political problems, beyond all the personality conflicts, they say, is the simple fact that the area does not have the property tax base to sustain a city.

"I don't think people realize just how expensive it is to maintain a city, much less start one," says Carlton Moore. Last year, at the request of the BCCC, the county contracted with Nova Southeastern University to study the feasibility of the incorporation of Area A.

"Based on current taxable values, the millage rate that a proposed municipality must assess to serve the needs of the community would far exceed the community's ability to pay and would exceed the comparable rates of the adjacent cities," a near-final draft of the report concludes.

Interestingly, according to the study's criteria, the day care center is a worse blight on the area than the strip club. That's because strip clubs, though not desirable to have in neighborhoods, do pay taxes at least. In Area A, fully 43.5 percent of the total property value is untaxable because it belongs to a church, service organization, or government. "Astonishing," says Irv Rosenbaum, a former Davie city manager and the principal author of the Nova report.

"I understand that you have to revitalize those areas, but that's something that's a long way off," Eggelletion says. "It's going to take a lot of money, a lot of capital," he claims, to renovate the many vacant buildings lining major Area A throughways such as Broward Boulevard, Sunrise Boulevard, and NW 27th Avenue.

Meanwhile, pressure is growing for both Area A and surrounding communities to find a solution to the problem of Area A's unincorporated status. State and county representatives are one in saying they want the county out of the business of providing municipal services (such as water and sewer) to places like Area A. And they haven't hesitated to apply pressure to residents' wallets.

For instance, county dollars that go toward providing municipal services to unincorporated areas are required to come from taxes collected in those areas. That means, as more and more areas are annexed, taxpayers in the remaining unincorporated areas face inexorably rising burdens.

Last year households in unincorporated areas got hit with a 23 percent tax increase, which was meant as a wake-up call to residents of unincorporated areas to get busy getting annexed. Along with the stick for the unincorporated areas, the county is providing a carrot for cities to annex areas by pouring millions of dollars into infrastructure upgrades and improvements.

Area A, for example, is set to get $70 million in improved water and sewage lines, says Gary Smith, director of the county Neighborhood Improvements Program. Economic Assistance Director Sue Fejes reels off a list of programs -- for housing rehabilitation, façade improvements, commercial loan guarantees, enterprise zones -- that apply to Area A. Also, the state is currently improving and widening Highway 441 from Interstate 595 north to Sunrise Boulevard.

Yet, while the improvements are meant to make the area more attractive to cities such as Plantation and Fort Lauderdale, they are having the effect of making incorporation more feasible, too.

Speaking of the Nova report, principal author Rosenbaum says, "This report can be used to make an argument for either side. Yes, the area is about $100 million short [in property tax base] of being viable. But look, that amount represents only about half a mile of [commercial property along] University Boulevard. It's not that much, really."

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