By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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By Kyle Swenson
Milton Jones's involvement in Regal Trace started in 1991, when he stepped in after the project's initial developer, Leonard Briscoe, failed to raise enough money, then was sentenced to two years in prison after a HUD scandal. To build the $27 million complex, Milton had to "romance" investors for two years during the early 1990s -- a recession made banks wary of financing any project, especially one in a blighted area. He eventually assembled a state grant of $4.1 million, an $11.25 million bank loan, and a $1.11 million county loan. The rest of the money came from investors who won the right to sell the $2.8 million per year in federal tax credits the development company received for building affordable housing.
The federal program through which the Jones Development Corp. received the tax credits for Regal Trace sets a cap on tenants' annual earnings. A single person must earn no more than $23,880 per year at the time he or she moves in. The scale moves up to $39,600 for a six-member family. Currently average rents in Regal Trace are approximately $600 for a one-bedroom unit, $717 for a two-bedroom, and $827 for a three-bedroom.
In the same year Regal Trace was completed, Fort Lauderdale created a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to further help blighted areas including the Sistrunk corridor. The agency works by increasing the tax base in an area, then channeling new taxes back into the area for redevelopment. The Fort Lauderdale CRA focuses on an area bounded north by Sunrise Boulevard, south by Broward Boulevard, east by Federal Highway, and west by the city limits (certain commercial and government buildings are not included).
Most city officials and neighbors interviewed for this story praise Jones and the contribution Regal Trace has made to the neighborhood. But critics have always said single-family dwellings would have been better than a big rental complex. Even those who are satisfied living in Regal Trace are striving for home ownership. "That is my dream, to live in my own house with my beautiful daughter," Michel says as his little girl plays on one of several mini playgrounds scattered throughout the property.
Asked why he insisted on making Regal Trace a rental property, Milton responds: "I felt if I built rentals, I could manage and maintain them in the way some people might if they owned the property themselves."
But others wish city officials had stuck to the original plan. "The city had promised [Regal Trace] would be a mix, with single-family homes and no more than 108 apartments," snaps black activist Leola McCoy. She has lived in the same modest ranch home for more than 40 years, in the historically black Wingate area, less than ten minutes north of the Sistrunk corridor. Not shy to brag about her own well-landscaped house, McCoy insists home ownership gives a person a sense of pride that renting does not. In addition homeowners can earn equity; tenants cannot recover rent.
The CRA recently decided to borrow $45 million to improve the area. Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle, who is chairman of the CRA, says some of the money will be spent on infrastructure, such as rebuilding streets, creating new sidewalks, and planting new landscapes. Money will also be used to purchase new property and to subsidize new development. That could include Milton Jones's new shopping center.
At the same time he won the right to develop Regal Trace, Milton Jones proposed to build a shopping center on a five-acre chunk of land at the corner of Sistrunk Boulevard and NW Seventh Avenue for commercial development.
City officials told Jones to hold off until he finished Regal Trace. He did. Then he waited while the officials planned a road to connect NW Seventh and Ninth avenues. Finally this past April the Fort Lauderdale commission voted to begin negotiations with Jones's company on the center.
Representatives of the CRA have been meeting with Jones and his family ever since, and this month the CRA will likely submit a contract to the city commission. Sean Jones says the complex will cost between eight and ten million dollars. How much will be publicly financed is unclear -- fundraising has not yet begun. Fort Lauderdale owns the land, and CRA director Kim Jackson said that may be the biggest sticking point -- the city might want the developers to buy it or lease it long-term. The Joneses say the land should be given to them as part of an incentive to build there.
Perhaps the most significant part of the planned complex is a supermarket that Milton hopes to attract. Potentially the first grocery in the neighborhood, it has supporters in the community. City Commissioner Carlton Moore, who represents residents in northwest Fort Lauderdale, voted against the proposal -- citing the fact that it did not include a committed supermarket chain. Regal Trace tenant Terena Jackson is one of the people who would like a new store. Presently Jackson and her neighbors travel to the Winn-Dixie market on SE 17th Street or the one on NW Ninth Avenue.
If Jones and family get their way, they will also build upscale townhomes on the site, upstairs from the offices and retailers. McCoy doesn't much like the shopping center plan, especially the townhomes, which she fears will cause gentrification. "Ohhh," she says, her tiny forehead furrowing and her voice dropping to an uncharacteristic whisper, "I hope they don't do that."