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Front Page » Opinion » Battle for fairgrounds is useless, so seek creative solutions

Battle for fairgrounds is useless, so seek creative solutions

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Written by on April 8, 2015

Battle for fairgrounds is useless, so seek creative solutions

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.

3 Responses to Battle for fairgrounds is useless, so seek creative solutions

  1. Stopt Hebus

    April 8, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    The Youth Fair site is 5-6 feet above MLW (low tide sea height). With sea level rise, the land may well be subject to flooding at high tide before the end of the Youth Fair’s lease. If the Youth Fair were smart, they’d trade for a spot on higher ground. FIU, being an entity of the State, of course cannot admit climate change exists.

  2. Jack Griffith

    April 9, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    The April 8 article by Michael Lewis is excellent!

    As the longest serving member of the Youth Fair’s Board, I have felt much pain due to the recent attacks and untruths about our 64 year old, not-for-profit organization, dedicated to recognizing and showcasing the talents and achievements of South Florida’s young people. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of our kids have participated in the Youth Fair, and the Fair has given them millions of dollars in scholarships and awards.

    About four years ago, a committee comprised of county, FIU, and Fair people was established to consider the possibilities of relocating the Fair. At that time, our Board committed to fully cooperate in the search, and the Fair has done exactly that. More than two dozen sites have been suggested and considered. Most of them were unacceptable to the committee and to highly qualified consultants (paid for equally by the Fair and FIU) for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the proposed sites were too small, or lacking in infrastructure and accessibility, or under water or so marshy that extensive filling would be required, or outside the UDB, etc. And remember, there are very few undeveloped properties in our county that are large enough to accommodate the needs of the Fair. Throughout this long process, the Fair has participated, cooperated, and considered every site proposed. Within the past couple of weeks, four sites were suggested for consideration. Two of those had previously been considered and eliminated as possible relocation sites. The other two have not been studied by the committee or the expert consultants. I feel certain we will give full consideration and cooperation in deciding whether or not they might be viable sites.

    The recent spate of statements and innuendoes and responses and rebuttals were NOT initiated by the Youth Fair. However, the Fair believes the people of Miami-Dade County must hear the truth, and we want only that, and the protection guaranteed under the terms of our lease with the County.

    My personal feeling is that the Youth Fair is ideally situated, and I hope it will continue there for many years to come.

    Perhaps Mr. Lewis is right when he suggests that FIU seek another site for expansion.

  3. Guest

    April 9, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    The Fair should step aside for the greater good of the residents and students of this county. The double looper and elephant ears can be had elsewhere in the county. The expansion of a university brings real benefits to the community at-large. Those running the Fair are short-sided and road-blocking for personal reasons.

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