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4/6/2006

Feature > Feature

"THEY SCREWED ME"
Danny Ramos says the city stole his idea for a Hispanic business incubator

 

Danny Ramos is bitter. You can see his indignation boiling just below the surface. But as he shuffles between an interview (in English) and a torrent of phone calls (in Spanish), he keeps a tight lid on it. He stays matter-of-fact, resigned to the reality that, in his view, he's been shafted and there's little he can do about it.

"They screwed me," he says. "I got thoroughly, thoroughly screwed."

"They" is the city of Orlando. And according to Ramos' version of events, city officials rogered him good.

Ramos is in his cramped office on the second floor of a nondescript building off East Colonial Drive, which his nonprofit – National Hispanic Corporate Achievers – moved into in late March. This isn't the office space he wanted. Just two months ago, he was certain that, when his old lease expired at the end of March, Hispanic Achievers would move into office space that was part of a city-funded Hispanic business incubator program. The incubator was, after all, his idea. His company was going to run it.

Only things didn't turn out as planned. The city is going to have an incubator in east Orlando all right, but it's going to be run by the University of Central Florida. Hispanic Achievers is on the sidelines, and Ramos has had to find his own office space.

In 2005, Ramos started pitching a Hispanic incubator project. The formal proposal to the city came Jan. 3. The incubator would be located in commissioner Betty Wyman's district, which is 39 percent Hispanic. The city would donate $300,000 to cover five years' rent, and Hispanic Achievers would fund its other costs through private donations. In return for the city's investment, Hispanic Achievers would nurture small Hispanic businesses, providing them office space and guidance in creating business and marketing plans.

For the next two months, Ramos negotiated with city officials, as well as Wyman and Mayor Buddy Dyer. By the end of January, city records show, Orlando sought to bring UCF into the project as a partner with Hispanic Achievers. The city had partnered with UCF on two other incubator projects in recent years, so the addition seemed a good fit.

At the time, city officials expressed reservations about Hispanic Achievers' involvement, although city records indicate that it was always planned as a partnership between the city, Ramos' group and later, UCF. In one e-mail, Orlando business development manager Brooke Bonnett suggested that Hispanic Achievers form a separate oversight board for the incubator, to which Hispanic Achievers' Jay Rosario replied, "I was a little surprised that you mentioned the idea of starting a new not-for-profit considering that we have all the rights to the incubator in that it was presented to all concerned by Hispanic Achievers almost a year ago."

The documents support Ramos' claim: This was Hispanic Achievers' baby, but not for long. By mid-February the city had given the project a new name: the District 2 Enterprise Center. This time, according to a draft proposal, UCF would take the lead, though Ramos' group still had a significant role to play. "It is anticipated that UCF will partner with Hispanic Achievers for assistance in implementing the District 2 Enterprise Center," the draft says. Hispanic Achievers would also have one seat on a 12-member advisory panel with representatives from the city, law and accounting firms, banks, Hispanic entrepreneurs and other Hispanic organizations.

Ramos sensed he was being pushed out. On several occasions in the first two weeks of February, Ramos or his lawyer wrote and e-mailed city officials, asking them to codify the partnership agreement in writing. But the city never did. He says city staffers lied to him.

The week before Dyer's Feb. 22 State of the City address, Ramos planned on announcing the incubator on his Spanish-language television show, but says the mayor's office asked him to hold off. He also told the city he'd gotten calls from the Orlando Sentinel. Bonnett replied, "Not sure how he learned it, but the timing couldn't be worse as we were really hoping to save it for next week."

As promised, Dyer announced the enterprise center in the speech, but without any reference to Hispanic Achievers. In fact, the incubator not only had a new name, it was now part of a much broader program. "We will develop the Orlando Business Enterprise Center, a model that will be the first of its kind in the Southeast, in partnership with the University of Central Florida," the mayor said. "The first enterprise center will be in commissioner Wyman's District 2."

Ramos says he spent the next month trying to figure out what was going on. The city called meetings, but he wasn't invited. He became convinced that he was being elbowed out. And he was.

On March 23, he says, Wyman delivered the bad news: The enterprise center was set for an April 3 vote, and Hispanic Achievers wasn't part of it, aside from a possible seat on the advisory board. (Wyman did not return phone calls for this story.)

Ramos was insulted. "I made a formal proposal for funding [to the city]," he says. "The government agency stole the proposal and redirected the proposal to friends of theirs."

There are no "friends" mentioned in the five-year, $1.5 million agreement that went to City Council on April 3. That agreement included only the city and UCF.

Still, Ramos sees politics at play. He thinks the incubator could potentially generate millions of dollars in grants. If Hispanic Achievers controlled that money, the beneficiaries would owe Ramos' group their allegiance. But the more the city controls it, the more the Dyer administration develops their power base in the Hispanic community come election time.

In a March 28 e-mail, Ramos told city commissioners: "At a recent given point Brooke Bonnett found out that an incubator got millions of dollars in another county. This is when the problems started. Because the project had major funding potential from the state and the federal government, Brooke Bonnett began to redefine the participants of the project."

The city says that's not the case. "He was informed from the get-go that UCF was one of our partners," says Orlando Rolon, a city spokesman and Dyer's police liaison. Rolon says the city wanted the project to be more than just an incubator for Hispanic businesses. It's part of a much larger plan; eventually, the city wants so-called enterprise projects in each of its six districts.

Rolon says the city doesn't want to focus solely on the Hispanic portion of District 2. "We felt out of fairness that we should identify and implement a program [for] all citizens as a whole."

Whatever the city calls it, the enterprise center is still an incubator. It says so in the first sentence of the city's fiscal impact statement: "The District 2 Enterprise Center is a business incubator that will be funded by the city and established and operated by the University of Central Florida with the advice and support of the city of Orlando."

Under Ramos' original proposal, Hispanic Achievers would operate the incubator with UCF. Under the current deal, the city is in control.

Rolon says Ramos' proposal was "not necessarily accepted." But neither was it rejected. It just got changed, and Hispanic Achievers was no longer a player.

That has Ramos threatening a lawsuit. If the city's enterprise center is not what he proposed, Ramos says, it should drop the incubator component of it altogether. Otherwise, he thinks the city simply stole his idea.

"Keep in mind that this was a formal proposal and request for funding by us, a minority [owned] not-for-profit. It was our project and the project was seemingly hijacked from us," he wrote in an e-mail to commissioners. "It is beyond my understanding how a request for funding can be renamed and the government funding source itself became the instrument to destroy our opportunity and project."

Ramos has decided that, if the city doesn't need him, he doesn't need it. On March 27, he announced the formation of his own incubator, out of his offices on East Colonial Drive and in Kissimmee, which he plans to fund without public money. He's forging ahead, but the bitterness is apparent.

"Now we see how the city operates," he says. "It's sleaze."

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com
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