Battle for fairgrounds is useless, so seek creative solutions
Written by Michael Lewis on April 8, 2015
Little is more gut-wrenching than a contested divorce or custody case. Two decent people paint each other as someone you’d hate to meet in a dark alley.
That’s how a battle is unfolding between Florida International University and the Youth Fair for custody of county-owned grounds that the fair leases in Tamiami Park adjacent to the FIU campus.
These premier citizens of Miami-Dade have enviable track records. Their standings are unimpeachable. The principals on both sides are as good as their principles.
Yet we’re witnessing a power play for land that the fair has under lease until 2085 – 70 more years. After failing to get the fair to move of its own volition to sites it doesn’t like, the university is using its clout to make it happen anyway.
The result? Harsh words, ill feeling, backers of one worthy organization pitted against supporters of another.
The pleadings boil down to each side noting how much good it has done, still does and will do again. Both are right. How could you deny FIU’s impact? Or the fair’s? You can’t – unless you’re on the other side.
But the pivotal question isn’t who’s better or who can wield more power or who will use the land better. We can argue those points nine ways from Sunday.
The proper question is, who has the right to the land? There is only one answer: the Youth Fair. It has a valid lease, is complying with the terms, and the lease runs 70 more years. Unless the fair wants to move, it can stay for 70 years.
Granted, the lease allows the county to ask the fair to leave within three years if moving costs are paid, the fair is reimbursed for improvements it made to its fairgrounds and it agrees to accept a site the county provides elsewhere. But none of two dozen sites offered has met the fair’s standards, and by law that’s the end of it. Unless the fair says yes, it stays.
Is the fair too picky? Perhaps. But the lease doesn’t say a tenant can’t be picky. We looked at well over 20 office sites before leasing one. We were picky. A lease is a major move for a long time that few tenants take lightly.
FIU argues that its needs and community impact trump the fair’s. The need is to expand as FIU plans to grow to more than 65,000 students by 2020.
If a university founded in just 1972 – after the youth fair had already leased the land next door – does get that big, it will become in sheer enrollment the nation’s biggest public university.
FIU’s own documents show 52,980 students in fall 2013, when it was fourth in enrollment on any US public university campus, trailing only Arizona State at Tempe with 60,168, the University of Central Florida in Orlando at 59,770 and Ohio State at 57,466. So 65,000 would make it biggest by far.
Should it grow that fast? In President Mark Rosenberg’s first five years, enrollment grew by 12,525 – an increase greater than the total size of Yale. Imagine adding a Yale in five years.
By comparison, growth in the final five years under President Mitch Maidique, who was known for empire-building, was only 4,085 students.
At 65,000 students, FIU would have 9,000 more students than five Ivy League schools combined: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth total 56,284. One might ask, how big is too big, and when will we target the quality of those five schools instead of just their numbers?
Of course, FIU is public, not private. But where would this public university get $230 million to replicate the fairgrounds buildings on a new site, plus funds for land and a move, and still have enough left for a huge campus expansion?
Ivy League schools could pull that from endowments or foundations. FIU, on the other hand, took $630,000 from its foundation to campaign for an addition on the fairgrounds. Its political action committee had spent $1,646,172.68 on that campaign through Feb. 28, using donations from many civic leaders, heavily weighted toward companies that could bid to construct campus buildings.
FIU is entitled by law to do that and to hire a large number of familiar firm names to lobby for a change in land lease, as it did..
In the fall, the university won a referendum that allowed it to use land now held by the fair – that is, allowed it if the fair wants to move or can be forced out by pressure. FIU calls that election a mandate for a move, but the fair’s move was not on the ballot.
FIU has far more clout than does the fair. Its graduates are many. It has friends galore, deservedly so.
The university notes correctly that the fair is getting land too cheap. The $122,000 that the fair paid the county last year was half the revenue from subleases with telecommunications companies that use the fairgrounds. The site’s true lease value would be a large multiple of that.
But that’s no cause to oust a tenant. The county simply gave away too much to the fair decades ago, all perfectly legal if not perfectly thought out.
It’s of no value, however, to argue over who made a good or bad deal then. What’s important is solving the problem.
The fair is happy where it is and says it won’t move without the right site and reimbursement.
If FIU wants to expand, maybe it, not the fair, should look elsewhere. Would one of 24 sites offered to the fair work for the university?
Many universities, after all, split campuses among multiple sites. The University of Miami has a hub on Virginia Key. FIU has one at 151st Street and Biscayne, and one on Brickell. Why not more?
Instead of spending hundreds of millions to move the fair, the university would be ahead if it spent the money on its own campus addition at another site, coupling it with whatever funds it had targeted to build on the fairgrounds.
The university has suggested splitting the fair in two locations; why doesn’t FIU consider that?
The university has every right to grow to the limit of its wallet or the generosity of donors and taxpayers. While academic observers say that bigger is not necessarily better and might question the need for so many students, the decision belongs to the university and the state.
This battle is overheated. Names are being called. The two sides could not today sit and discuss the issue. A cooling-off period is vital.
So is a panel to which the county as landholder, the university as would-be land user and the fair as leaseholder would appoint representatives to seek a creative solution. Members would need civil tongues and patience, because we need three parties to acquiesce to make anything work.
We witness a stalemate. If the university insists on moving a leaseholder through pressures, a bad situation will get worse and this community will be the loser.
FIU has far more guns and far more friends, but a powerful state university with a fine track record should not want to appear to be a bully. We can argue all day over who would use the land better, but it’s far more useful to instead seek ways for two outstanding organizations to both win.