Spring 2010 Issue
Oh Me Oh MiMo
Barry business students help to revitalize a neighborhood and preserve a local design legacy
By Erik Bojnansky
When Joseph Lahoud learned that his coursework for Dr. Inge Nickerson’s graduate business consulting class would require helping the Miami Modern (MiMo) Biscayne Boulevard Historic District prosper, he imagined the worst.
“All I knew was that you shouldn’t go there at night,” Lahoud says.
And he wasn’t alone in his opinion. Most of his 18 other classmates knew little about the four-year-old MiMo district that meanders along 27 blocks of Biscayne Boulevard just south of Miami Shores. Nickerson, a management professor at the Andreas School of Business, also admits her knowledge of the area was only “peripheral.” “We, first of all, had to familiarize ourselves with what was there,” she notes.
By December 2009, however, Nickerson’s students completed a 115-page SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) assessment titled “A Report to the Miami Modern District” that looked at “what the situation is currently” and offered ideas on how the district could evolve.
During the course of their research the students discovered a few surprising facts, among them that this Miami strip, once infamous for its prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers, is located in a neighborhood with one of the lowest crime rates in the city. It’s also a neighborhood that boasts a number of eclectic restaurants, boutiques, galleries and other small businesses. In fact, it’s chock-full of entrepreneurs who have invested in the area for the past decade or so, intent on sparking a South Beach-like renaissance. Among them are South Beach restaurateur Mark Soyka, who developed the 55th Street Station more than a decade ago; famed chef Michelle Bernstein, owner of gourmet bistro Michy’s; and chef Kris Wessel, who opened Red Light in the Motel Blu.
“The business owners have such vision about what they do, such passion,” says MBA student Gina Coscuella, a Miami native. “There are some amazing entrepreneurs over there.”
Nickerson’s class undertook the project on behalf of the Barry Institute of Community and Economic Development, or BICED. Attached to the Andreas School of Business, BICED offers expertise and counsel to nonprofits working with or representing struggling neighborhoods as well as to aspiring and/or struggling business owners. Last year BICED was contacted by the MiMo Biscayne Business Improvement Committee (BIC), a nonprofit representing preservationists and property owners who want to form a special taxing district within part of the MiMo historic district. The group needed a study that outlined the district’s challenges and potentials to fellow property owners and the city of Miami.
Dr. Manny Tejeda, BICED executive director and management professor in the School of Business, quickly agreed to help. “The project fits our model of social enterprising. It provided a tremendous opportunity to bring our MBA students in on a project that has both social and business relevance,” Tejeda says. “In addition, the MiMo district abuts other neighborhoods that have experienced their own challenges. Working with MiMo to create a thriving business community and the jobs that go along with that will help the surrounding areas.”
Aside from sparking a wider economic resurgence, a vibrant MiMo district will also guarantee the preservation of dozens of historic buildings, many of which, particularly the motels, were constructed in the MiMo architectural style popular in Miami-Dade County between 1946 and 1972.
Nancy Liebman, vice president of the MiMo BIC, says BICED has been a tremendous help in planning the district’s future. Liebman, a former Miami Beach city commissioner and the executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, notes that proper planning is what secured success for South Beach’s Art Deco district. “If you look at it today, it is like the vision came to pass,” she says. “This is what we are doing [along Biscayne Boulevard]. ... It is really a vision for the future.”
Formed in January 2009 thanks to a $100,000 grant from the city of Miami, the MiMo BIC’s mission is to explore the creation of a business improvement district that would charge an additional tax to property owners for enhanced security, maintenance and marketing. Although the actual historic district stretches between 50th and 77th streets, the proposed business improvement district will go from 61st to 82nd streets where the “actual commercial core” lays, says Scott Timm, executive director of the MiMo BIC.
Liebman says that she hopes that a majority of property owners in that targeted area will agree to form a MiMo business improvement district by May. But the committee still needed information to help the district evolve properly, which is where BICED and Nickerson’s class came in. “We needed some professional support in order to convince the powers that be of what needs to be done for the historic district,” she explains.
To put their research into context, Nickerson’s students also analyzed the economic development of other places that have undergone similar growing pains and reinvented themselves as tourist draws like Coconut Grove, South Beach, Downtown Delray Beach, Hollywood’s Young Circle, Tampa’s Ybor City and Miami Lakes’ Main Street.
History, physical layout and crime statistics were among the factors included in the group’s analysis. Crime and prostitution, or the perception of it, figured heavily in Nickerson’s class’ analysis. Using a survey compiled by MBA student Aygun Suleymanova, her classmates asked 342 Miami-Dade and Broward residents about their views of the MiMo district. Although 70 percent of those surveyed indicated that the area was unsafe, “when we check actual crime statistics,” Nickerson says, “[the district] has one of the lowest crime rates in the city.” Between 2006 and 2008 the Upper Eastside neighborhood, where the MiMo district is located, had the city’s second lowest crime rate, according to Miami Police Department statistics.
“Incidents of rape, aggravated assault, vehicle theft and homicide are much lower compared to other communities within city limits,” the report states.
A drawback for the district, though, was Biscayne Boulevard’s high volume of traffic. “One of the main challenges was U.S.1 running through the district and being a main travel artery,” says management student Julio Avael. The lack of crosswalks connecting both sides of the boulevard prevents pedestrians from exploring the district, creating a “critical issue,” Avael explains. And, while parking is plentiful in the district, driving from spot to spot on Biscayne Boulevard can be challenging. “I don’t think anyone is willing to navigate Biscayne Boulevard in late evening traffic,” he adds. To make the boulevard more pedestrian friendly, Nickerson’s students recommended additional cross walks.
However, the greatest threat to the district’s future is if its stakeholders “lose the will to move forward,” Nickerson says. “It is not going to happen in a year or two, just like South Beach didn’t happen in a year or two,” she warns. “It’s a 30-year project we are talking about.”
To help develop this vision further, BICED also enlisted the help of Dr. Selima Ben Mrad, associate professor of marketing, and the students in her graduate-level marketing strategy class. The class is producing a second report that will make recommendations about how the MiMo district can be promoted to the rest of the world. It is due in late spring.
“We have to change the brand image, do a little bit of transformation with the area,” Ben Mrad says. “It has a lot of potential. Its location is really good. It is 10 minutes from downtown Miami and it is also [near] the bay. If we can develop a good marketing plan. ... It will be a hot area.”
Joseph Lahoud is also among the students on Mrad’s team. Once doubtful of the district’s future, he became such a “true believer” that he volunteered for a second tour. “At the beginning a lot of us were skeptical,” he says. “But we can see the potential for MiMo. ... The only difference between South Beach and MiMo is the beach - and that is it.”
Three for the ‘price’ of one
Since its founding in 1940, one of Barry’s core principles has always been its commitment to “collaborative service,” explains Barry President Sister Linda Bevilacqua, OP, PhD. “Barry is committed to serving local communities through collaborative and mutually productive partnerships,” she says. “In addition, we accept responsibility to engage in the community and to pursue systematic self-sustaining solutions to human, social, economic and environmental problems.”
The School of Business has long offered its assistance to the community at large, says Nickerson: “It was just something we did.” However, thanks to the BICED team lead by Tejeda, that effort “now has a home” as well as some funding.
“I have been working on the idea for a few years as we [as educators] try to create business schools that have deep focus in social responsibility,” Tejeda says. It wasn’t until October 2008, however, that the BICED initiative came to fruition at the result of funding from the Small Business Administration ($175,000 over two years), Miami-Dade County’s Office of Community Development (about $100,000 per year) and the Allegany Franciscan Ministries ($162,000 for the first two years).
Thus far BICED has completed more than 30 “business/action” plans for community-based nonprofits. By sending business students on community-building projects like MiMo, BICED is exposing them to “real-world job experience and challenges,” Tejeda notes. “These opportunities allow our business students to have a well-rounded understanding of the role of business in our society and of the importance of socially responsible business practices,” he says. “BICED also exposes students to the nonprofit and service careers that expand their opportunities as they consider their futures and how they will leverage their business degree for themselves and society.”
BICED, however, is not a single entity but three smaller entities, each with its own purpose. The 30-year-old Entrepreneurial Institute, which moved to Barry from Florida Memorial College upon BICED’s creation, is dedicated to reducing “economic disparity” in Miami-Dade County. The Institute works with approximately 1,000 entrepreneurs a year to increase the number of minority-owned businesses and “to create businesses and jobs in low-to-moderate income underserved neighborhoods,” Tejeda says. The Entrepreneurial Institute also hosted an “entrepreneurial boot camp” for 40 middle and high school kids from Opa-Locka last summer.
The Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Tejeda explains, “assists not-for-profit organizations in strengthening their fundamental business skills to improve their efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability thereby improving their service to their clients and the community.”
Finally, the Center for Community Economies helps nonprofits and business owners to determine the economic needs of their respective neighborhoods and suggests methods of achieving those needs.
“The MiMo project fell under the Center for Community Economies,” explains BICED’s Assistant Director Jack Kleban, who noted that prior to the MiMo project BICED was already working with the Northeast Second Avenue Partnership and the Belafonte Tacolcy Center to revitalize the commercial corridors of Little Haiti and Liberty City. City-Data.com listed both of those areas’ median annual incomes at less than $23,000 for 2008.
“If the three areas see some kind of improvement in reaching their goals, it will be synergetic,” Kleban says. “What happens in MiMo helps the neighborhoods further west [of Biscayne Boulevard]. What helps Little Haiti and Liberty City will help MiMo.”
While the story of the MiMo district’s development is ongoing, the business students who worked on “A Report to the Miami Modern District” say they not only “loved” working on the project but also learned a lot from the experience; knowledge they will use in their current or future careers.
Coscuella, a former mortgage broker who helped formulate the idea of creating history tours in the district, say it “was an invaluable experience” that she will take with her to her next endeavor as the founder of the VanCas Group, a company that provides fundraising, web design and marketing services for nonprofit organizations. “It’s the same thing,” she says, “You have a raw idea; you give it direction, map it out and frame it.”
The project has inspired Suleymanova, who developed the project’s public perception survey and helped formulate the “culinary row” scenario, to go into consulting. “It is extremely interesting,” she says. “The approach, the research, the presentation. ... It is everything I want to do in the future.”
Organizations such as BICED are not only enriching the education of today’s business students but are also providing a vital service as “small business development and community revitalization will play a significant role in our country’s future, especially in regions like South Florida,” says Dean of the Andreas School of Business Dr. Tomislav Mandakovic. “At the same time, these types of service learning experiences provide students with a chance to hit the ground running at degree completion, making them very desirable to prospective employers.”
Erik Bojnansky is a Miami Beach-based freelance writer.
In “A Report to the Miami Modern District,” Dr. Inge Nickerson’s students offered five marketing and development scenarios (opportunities) for the Miami Modern Biscayne Boulevard Historic District.
- 1950s Revival: Revitalize 12 “landmark” 1950s era motels, making them the “anchors” of the district and basing future development on their design. “In order to do this, the motels need to be unified or tied together through a string of new developments and façade upgrades in the style of Miami Modern/the 1950s,” states the report. “Other communities have that architectural continuity - Miami Lakes’ Main Street and South Beach, for example. MiMo does not.”
- Sports Haven: Transform the old Immigration and Naturalization Plan building at 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard into a sports hub that includes indoor bowling alleys, tennis courts and indoor soccer facilities. The plan also seeks to capitalize on the ongoing development of public recreation facilities in neighboring Little Haiti, such as the recently opened Emmanuel Sanon Soccer Park.
- Culinary Row: Promote the abundance of dining establishments already present in the district through media promotions and more special events. The MiMo Biscayne Association, an association of business owners and residents based in the district, already hosts special events such as MiMoween on October 31 and Cinco de MiMo on May 5.
- Art Hub: Push for the creation of more galleries and art exhibitions in the MiMo area and commission local artists to paint murals.
- Red Light District: Embrace Biscayne Boulevard’s racy past by launching “Red Light History” tours, “walk of shame” sidewalk emplacements that highlight the street’s more controversial figures (such as Yahweh Ben Yahweh whose cult once owned a hotel on the boulevard) and even strategically placed red lights.
What is MiMo?
The term MiMo, short for Miami Modern, was coined in the late 1990s by interior designer Teri D’Amico and former Miami Design Preservation League staffer Randall Robinson to describe buildings constructed between 1945 and 1972. Common elements of MiMo architecture include star-motifs, cheese-hole cutouts, overhangs, textured walls and other design features that represent a whimsical vision of the future.
“We needed to identify this architecture, [then] referred to as post-war. By branding it we gave it a whole new life. It identified the style,” D’Amico says.
Buildings of all types spanning from 1926 all the way to the 21st century can be found in the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. Yet, it’s the MiMo-designed motels that are monuments to the boulevard’s most recent boom period of the 1950s.
“As part of U.S. 1, the north-south artery from Key West to Maine, Biscayne Boulevard catered to the automotive traveler,” states “A Report to the Miami Modern District.” “As more and more tourists ‘hit the road’ during the 1950s, these sleepy motels and motor courts along Biscayne Boulevard featured amenities that appealed to automobile tourists: access to highways, attractive surroundings, ample parking and close proximity to beaches and other area attractions.”
Ironically, traffic would be the boulevard’s downfall. After I-95 was completed in 1969, cars were diverted away from the boulevard. As businesses closed, buildings were left vacant and demolished. Crime skyrocketed.
But a new era was ushered in as young professionals moved into the surrounding neighborhoods during the 1990s, gradually attracting new restaurants, shops and services. By 2003, the city of Miami designated the circa 1953 Vagabond Motel as a historic property. The Miami Modern (MiMo) Historic District, spanning 50th to 77th streets, was born three years later. A proposal to expand the MiMo district up to the Miami Shores border is being studied.
In 2008, the city of Miami encouraged more restaurant activity in the MiMo district by waiving city distance requirements for bars. Also, in 2008, Coppertone’s parent company donated to the MiMo district the classic 1959 Coppertone Girl sign, which now adorns the side of an office building at 7300 Biscayne Boulevard.