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The City and Mr. Jones

Milton Jones's two-story, brick-and-barrel-tile home on Sunrise Key is a statement of quiet dignity. A two-car garage and circular driveway offer enough space for three Mercedes Benzes. Inside the house, rich fabrics in cream and coral hues dominate a tasteful décor. Around back there's a swimming pool, a boat dock leading to an inlet, and a Wellcraft Sun Cruiser that Milton's wife, Barbara, refers to as her husband's toy.

Every weekday morning Milton kisses Barbara before pulling away from the house in his black Mercedes sedan, which is decked out in leather upholstery, wood trim, and a large-screen stereo console. He leaves the pebble driveway behind and heads over the bridge that separates his swanky neighborhood from the mainland, then navigates winding roads to Broward Boulevard and a straight shot into the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale. On the way he passes stately homes, apartment complexes, rental buildings, and St. Anthony's Catholic Church, where Milton ushers at noon mass every Sunday. (For his work with the church, he won a Jubilee Year award from Pope John Paul II last year.)

As he approaches his destination, the scenery changes. Pretty structures give way to plain commercial buildings, decaying homes, and housing projects. At the end of the line on Sistrunk Boulevard, between a post office and railroad tracks, is an affordable-housing complex called Regal Trace that, back in the early '90s, became Milton's first foray into redeveloping the rundown neighborhoods of northwest Fort Lauderdale.

When he arrives at the 408-unit complex, which opened in 1995, Milton carefully picks up twigs and bits of garbage on his way to the management office, then carries the bundle off to a trash receptacle. Next he walks through the door and sits down; high ceilings and wood shelving rise above his desk, which is rife with large, neatly stacked piles of documents. Whether speaking with a visitor or talking on the phone, Milton continually glances at a television tuned to CNBC that provides the latest stock quotes and news flashes. In one corner, leaning against a wall, is a large piece of posterboard that depicts a 120,000-square-foot shopping center. The project, which will likely include the area's first supermarket, was approved last month by Fort Lauderdale city commissioners -- ten years after Milton first submitted his proposal.

"We're trying to bring goods and services to an area that is underserved," he says, noting the lack of retailers in the area besides a Church's Chicken, laundries, and tiny shops. But Milton and his family talk about more than a place for folks to buy the basics. They dream of upscale stores, professional offices, and fancy townhomes. His 36-year-old son and business partner, Sean, and daughter, Daphne, age 37, who also works for the family business, say they want a place for young, successful blacks to live.

Before the well-to-do can call the area home, the city and developers must figure out how to revamp it while meeting the needs of those who have lived there all their lives. It may not be easy. Some residents say they don't need upscale apartments and high-end retailers. Even if projects in low-income neighborhoods have city backing, banks often won't bankroll them. Before he tries to gussy up the community, some say, Milton Jones would do well to remember his humble beginnings in segregated Broward County.

Threatening rain, gray clouds cast a pall on the vacant lot at the corner of NW First Street and Sixth Avenue in Dania Beach. The neighborhood, with its decrepit houses, sparse lawns, and chainlink fences around every home, has a feeling best described as weary -- not rundown because it was never affluent. It's on the west side of the tracks, which has been dominated by African-Americans for as long as anyone can remember. Used to be it was the only place in town blacks could live.

A house once stood on this lot, a little wooden structure with two bedrooms and a bathroom complete with a number-five tub -- the round, metal, all-purpose kind that poor folk in movies use to bathe themselves and wash their clothes. Milton grew up in this house, which was torn down after a fire in the early 1970s.

Milton was born in 1941. His mother, Rhodie, died when little Milton was about seven years old and his brother, Albert, was a toddler. Their father, Milton Jones Sr., stuck it out with the kids during a period when many single black fathers would have turned over their youngsters to grandparents and perhaps gone to seek their fortunes in places where segregation wasn't an obstacle. Milton Sr. followed Rhodie's dying wish and devoted himself to the role of family man, which had a lasting effect on his boys. A few years after becoming widowed, he met and married Mildred Verona Kelsic, who took to the kids as if they were her own.

Mildred, who was from New Jersey, hated the segregationist ways of the time. She worked briefly as a housecleaner but didn't last very long at that job because she didn't care to be subservient to white folks. Then she helped support the family as a school cafeteria manager.

In Dania of the time, blacks drew strength from one another, and their community flourished. The Jones home was close to Fifth Avenue, the hub of black Dania, where Letty Bryant, grandmother to the Jones boys, was one of the first African-Americans to own a grocery store. There were also bars, restaurants, shops, even a taxi stand. Many blacks held jobs in the skilled trades then, so residents helped each other build homes and do the plumbing, electricity, and carpentry.

They also had to rely on one another for most of their merchandise. What black-owned businesses didn't have -- mostly shoes and clothing -- they had to buy from Jewish retailers, who allowed them to try on apparel and footwear. Other white-owned stores required an African-American patron to guess at her dress size and bring a string premeasured to the length of her foot.

On the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor in Fort Lauderdale, life was much the same. Two black physicians, Dr. James Franklin Sistrunk, for whom the street is named, and Dr. Von Mizell, established the blacks-only Provident Hospital in 1938 -- three years before Milton was born there. The Sistrunk neighborhood was the place for blacks who wanted to spend a hot night on the town; blues clubs, dance halls, a movie theater, and restaurants flourished there.

Zarline Scott, president of the Fort Lauderdale Black Historical Society, grew up near Sistrunk and remembers the excitement of seeing black performers who played in Miami Beach but were not allowed to dine or sleep in most establishments there. "We got a chance to see Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Sidney Poitier, Eartha Kitt, a lot of entertainers," Scott recalls with relish. "The best." Sometimes those entertainers stayed in Fort Lauderdale, either at the Hill's Hotel on Sistrunk or with a family that took in boarders. Comments Scott: "It gave them a chance to gig for their people, for little or no money, because the whites paid them so much."

Albert Jones remembers a tight-knit feeling among Broward County's African-Americans. "The black community was really one that was a haven for us kids growing up," he says, "the unity of family and friends and church." Kids called the grownups auntie and uncle, whether or not they were related. Says Albert: "You carried yourself well; said "yes sir,' "no sir'; and any adult could reprimand you." Though they were poor, that sense of community spirit instilled a sense of pride and self-worth in many children, including Milton Jones.

Even as an adolescent, Milton took pride in his appearance. He once removed his shirt before playing sports at school so that he wouldn't come home dirty. But he wasn't above acting like any other child. Milton would sometimes yell at Albert for being a pesky little brother. Albert also recalls that his parents, strict about school and chores, made the boys wash dishes, though that was considered girls' work. But Milton escaped scrubbing plates more often than Albert. "My brother always liked to supervise," Albert says with a grin. "He wouldn't do a lot of menial stuff."

Milton was a straight-A student all through school, but he also found time for fun. On weekends he and other kids walked along the railroad tracks to Port Everglades, packed on to a ferry and rode 30 minutes to the black-only beach that is now John U. Lloyd State Park. Or they stayed on the mainland, caught fish and crabs, and ate oranges from trees growing near the water.

Sometimes one of the families who lived on their street invited all the neighborhood children over to play board games like Scrabble and Monopoly. One would think a future developer might have cleaned up in Monopoly, but Milton says only, "I did OK."

At age ten he started working in his grandmother's grocery store. Mildred and Milton Sr. surely did their part in forging their son's success. "I was a pusher when it came to school," Mildred recalls. "[The boys] knew they'd better go to school." Albert says it was very important to his parents that he and his brother attend college. "[My parents] never had a college education, though my father, with everything he did... it was like he had a college degree." Indeed, Milton Sr. graduated from doing handiwork to maintaining the numerous properties acquired by his boss, white Dania developer Ernest Klatt. The elder Jones gradually recognized the value of real estate, and years later would propel Milton Jr. into a lucrative profession.

Jones Development Corp. is housed in a tiny, utilitarian space in a warehouse located on the west side of the tracks in Dania Beach. The walls are a shade between cream and beige. The metal cabinets are stuffed with documents acquired over the past few decades. After passing through the tiny reception area, one comes across Barbara Jones's desk, which is in similarly cramped quarters. The only superfluous presence in the no-nonsense office is that of two framed, poster-size, early-20th-century handwritten land deeds, dotted with red wax seals. The pieces add a touch of unexpected whimsy; Barbara admires the fine script and marvels at how real-estate documents were once drawn up by hand.

It's a little surreal to drive around the poor black area of Dania Beach with Barbara in her silver Mercedes convertible while viewing the Joneses' dozen or so properties. Buildings as Spartan as the office are scattered around areas that did not experience the economic boom of the 1990s. Geared toward low-to-middle- income residents, they are mostly duplexes or small apartment buildings. The Jones family built Sun Garden, a 24-unit rental property, in 1998.

Jones Development Corp. houses more low-income residents than any group that holds a contract with the Dania Beach Housing Authority; it provides shelter for 60 of the 399 tenants who receive federal rental subsidies, says authority director Rita Brown.

The grounds of the Joneses' properties are tidy. Inside, they aren't fancy -- most units are painted the same cream-beige hybrid as the Jones Development office, with floors that look aged but not yet worn out. And tenants say their apartments are properly maintained. "[Milton] is a wonderful man, and his wife is lovely... the best landlords I ever had," gushes Everline Hamp, age 65, who for six years has lived in a 33-unit building at the corner of SW Fourth Avenue and West Dania Beach Boulevard. She proudly shows off her one-bedroom apartment, which is filled with teddy bears and pictures of grandchildren. She is especially happy about the new air conditioner she recently received, and says the Joneses make repairs in the apartments quickly, "as long as you call and tell them about it."

"My air conditioner broke down twice last month, and both times they had it fixed by the next day," adds Francine Mathis, who with her daughters (Ayanna Smith and Shaquanda Peterson, both age 13, and Angel Lee, age 4) lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a six-unit building on the corner of NW 13th Court and Second Street. "That was really important, because Angel has asthma." Mathis, whose family has lived in the building for two years, says her landlords are strict about rules -- for example, no one can have a party without their permission.

Barbara Jones is in charge of the Dania Beach office; her husband and their son, Sean, run Regal Trace. She and Milton have been partners from the start. Both Barbara and Milton attended Florida A&M University and graduated in 1963 -- he in political science, she in speech and language. After college Milton was inducted into the U.S. Army, training to become an officer. He traveled to Texas and Kentucky, and after two years decided to leave the service.

The couple moved back to their native Florida (Barbara grew up poor in Apalachicola, one of five children raised by her widowed mother). For a year Milton was a teacher in Sebring, instructing students in history, English, and psychology; sponsoring the 11th grade class play; and coaching basketball and football. But the profession didn't pay much, and soon Milton was intrigued by a newspaper ad seeking Aetna insurance agents. Milton set out to Hartford, Connecticut, where the company trained him.

In the mid-'60s, Milton brought his wife and two toddler children back to Dania, where he sold insurance for 11 years. Although he was successful, the family didn't spend money on creature comforts, says daughter Daphne, an assistant Broward County attorney, who also does legal work for the family business.

A few years later, Milton Sr. found a business opportunity when a woman from his church put some property up for sale. The elder Milton Jones and his wife weren't interested, so father attempted to cajole son into buying it. At first Milton Jr. didn't bite, but eventually he relented -- sparking a real estate and development dynasty.

Although the couple earned decent money -- in addition to Milton's income, Barbara taught speech classes in schools -- the couple scrimped. They lived on one income and spent the other to buy properties and pay for private schooling for their children. While their college buddies excitedly bought their first homes in nice developments, the Jones family resided in lower-class neighborhoods. Dr. Dorsey Miller, one of Milton's few close friends and a fellow member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, remembers the Joneses were living in a duplex in Dania when the two men met.

After long days at work, Milton and Barbara put the children to bed and studied, first for their real estate and mortgage brokers' licenses. Barbara also helped Milton study so he could qualify as a contractor, reading ahead and asking him questions. The studying even ate up parts of their weekends, but, Barbara says, "it didn't seem so difficult, looking back on it. It was just a part of our family growing, developing, and moving in the direction we wanted it to."

Milton started building in earnest, first with a partner, then on his own. His biggest projects included Copans Square -- completed in the mid-'70s and made up of 250,000 square feet of industrial and office space, including a satellite county courthouse -- and the Shops at Dillard, built in the late '80s at the corner of 27th Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard, which included a pizzeria, a drug store, and other businesses that had been lacking in that area. Convincing Walgreen Drug Stores to build at Dillard was a major coup -- Jones Development "pursued [the company] for approximately two years," Sean says.

But there were also setbacks. Barbara says Jones Development didn't win the contract for the first black-owned convention hotel in Miami Beach in the mid-'90s because the family was unwilling to invest the amount demanded by city officials. (The Joneses had offered to build a Doubletree all-suites hotel; Miami developer R. Donahue Peebles ultimately built the Crowne Plaza in 1998.) Jones Development won a bid to build a low-income housing complex in Hallandale, then lost it in 1998 when another company offered to invest one million dollars more. Black residents claimed racism at the time for the city commission's change of heart. (Such a move is rare after a bid has been awarded.)

Anti-black sentiment has occasionally cropped up during Milton's career. "I would always go out and do my homework. I always knew what other contractors were doing," he says. "If they gave developer A, who happened to be white, $10,000 and gave me only $7000 to $8000, I'd say, "Wait a minute!' I'd point out to them that the bricks and sticks cost the same for both projects."

Terena Jackson's first-floor apartment in Regal Trace houses her family of four. Tile covers the floor near the doorway, and the entranceway melds into the living/dining room. A sliding glass door to the right leads to a small patio. To the left is the kitchen, which includes blond-wood kitchen cabinets, a large refrigerator, and a full-size stove. There's an off-white couch and matching plaster sculpture in the living room and a bicycle parked in the dining area. A narrow hallway leads to a bedroom, bathroom, and modest master suite.

Jackson, who has driven a school bus for the last 11 years, stands tall and proud as she scrubs dishes. It's been a long day for her. Since leaving work she's had to care for her two daughters, ages 7 and 12, as well as a niece. Two of the girls play in the living room as Jackson -- her hair slightly askew, white blouse rumpled, and matching gold earrings and bracelets gleaming in the twilight -- talks about the advantages and disadvantages of living in the place Milton Jones built and now manages.

Right now the disadvantages have gotten to her. "It used to be so beautiful the first two years," says Jackson, whose family has lived in Regal Trace six years. "Now you have to wait a week to get the maintenance people to come out," even when her toilet occasionally backs up. She says she and other first-floor residents often put up with flooding. "It's real bad when you're in your own house, and it smells like mold, and you have to walk around like this," she says, pantomiming stepping around puddles, "and it takes them so long to come and clean it up." On top of that, she says, management has never shampooed the blue, well-worn carpeting.

But it's not all bad, Jackson admits. The air conditioning and appliances always work. And she says the 24-hour security, along with the iron fence that surrounds the property, has meant no apartment burglaries, though cars are sometimes broken into. If there's a problem, police come as soon as you call, she adds.

And then there's the rent. "I have to say, I haven't seen apartments like this that are cheaper than here," Jackson says. Her family pays $688 for their two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit. Jackson used to live in a duplex in Lauderhill. She moved in with her mother when money got tight; after a few months the Jacksons moved into Regal Trace. "It was real nice," she recalls. "That's why we moved here."

Other families thought the same thing. Demosthene Pere Fils, his wife, Rose, and their eight-year-old son, Marvin, have lived in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment for three years. Before that they rented a house on NW Fifth Avenue. "This place is nice. The street we lived on, well, it wasn't so nice," Marvin says, wrinkling his nose at the memory. Because the family, who immigrated from Haiti eight years ago, lives on the second floor, they don't have problems with flooding. They say maintenance problems get repaired in a timely fashion. The vaulted ceilings add space to the living room, which is crammed to the hilt with black velour sofas and a giant, black-lacquered curio cabinet. Pigeon peas and rice bubble heartily on the stove. When it gets too hot, the air conditioning kicks in quickly.

Marvin's father does yard work for a living; his mother is a seamstress. They can afford their monthly rent of $643. And they like having other Haitians as neighbors, like Jean Michel, who says he has no problems with the $550 per month one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, Mary, and their two-year-old daughter, Elsie.

The apartment complex is part of Fort Lauderdale's long-term attempt at revitalization, begun in the late 1970s when the city realized desegregation, which allowed blacks to move to the western suburbs, had an unexpected effect: The decline of inner-city black communities. Officials started purchasing land in the early 1980s for three phases of redevelopment. Over the years they moved some 1500 residents out of the area northwest of downtown and bulldozed the decaying houses. They planned a large housing complex, which became Regal Trace, and a nearby shopping center as Phase II and Phase III, respectively. (Overall the city has paid out almost $57 million in federal Community Development Block Grant money since 1975, most of it in the Sistrunk area, to improve everything from streets to individual homes and businesses.)

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."

Charles Dean has lived along the Sistrunk corridor all of his 60 years, and currently resides with his mother on NW Eighth Avenue. Clad in a T-shirt depicting African-American leaders, Dean waited one recent afternoon for laundry to dry at the Wash-O-Mat on the corner of Sistrunk and NW Seventh Avenue -- a stone's throw from the shopping center's proposed location. He is wary of the plans. "We need grocery stores and places to shop," he says. "We shouldn't have to go to white areas for everything.... [But] we don't need no more [apartments]; those over there are enough," he says, pointing to Regal Trace. He adds that he's tired of seeing partly built structures stand unfinished along Sistrunk Boulevard, and thinks it's a sign that redevelopment is an empty promise. Moreover he recalls how he's seen the area deteriorate. His tired eyes, which brighten momentarily at the thought of the proposed new supermarket, again dim as he laments, "This was a good living area at one time."

Milton Jones believes the area can be restored to its past glory. Once the shopping center contract is signed, he will start recruiting investors in earnest. He's confident his success with Regal Trace proves he can make the shopping center a reality. "We'll have to work as hard again, but I can do it," he says. "No one had a track record here before me. I've already done the grunt work."

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