Fair can be forced out only at high cost, so keep talks going
Written by Michael Lewis on December 29, 2015
County Commissioner Juan Zapata’s campaign to force the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition off county land and out of his district seems inexplicable for many reasons.
As we reported last week, Mr. Zapata wrote a snarky letter to Mayor Carlos Gimenez lambasting him for not moving faster to force the Youth Fair to move to Homestead to make way for expansion of Mr. Zapata’s alma mater, Florida International University.
Good people disagree on the issue of growth of FIU and whether larger is necessarily better. Good people also disagree on whether, if our public university does expand, it should come at the expense of our not-for-profit Youth Fair.
Disagreement can be healthy in resolving issues to the public’s benefit.
In the case of Mr. Zapata, however, it’s hard to understand how an intelligent, informed commissioner can take careful aim and then fire at his own feet.
First, if he wants Mayor Gimenez to accept his views, it’s intemperate to write for public consumption that “the fair’s delay tactics and your lack of strong leadership on this issue are no longer acceptable to me as the county commissioner of the area.” Where is his sense of tone?
And would someone seeking the mayor’s aid write that “your administration continues to support the creation of low paying jobs while squandering incredible opportunities to create numerous high paying jobs that would result from FIU’s expansion”?
Such language can only add frictions, not gain allies. It sounds more like a volley in the 2016 mayoral election than an effort to solve a community conundrum.
Then there’s the question of how a commissioner could write of his district landmark that “the fair is not vital to the long-term wellbeing of our community.”
Mr. Zapata ought to prize assets like the fair – not to mention the 653,281 people who attended this year or its $13.6 million operating income. What other commissioner would reject the fair as a district prize? But Mr. Zapata wants to force an immediate move to Homestead.
The commissioner is also far too smart to really believe as he wrote that an expansion of the university onto the 85-acre fairgrounds was “dictated by the voters.”
A 2014 election for which FIU used a dozen lobbyists did legalize university use of part of the fairgrounds, which the county charter then barred. But for voters to make something legal is very different than to dictate it. Some roads permit us to drive 55 miles per hour, but they don’t dictate 55. Mr. Zapata knows there’s no mandate, and he knows that the mayor knows it too.
Mr. Zapata chides Mayor Gimenez for working with the Youth Fair to find a way for both the fair and FIU to use current fairgrounds. He must know that county and fair representatives have been meeting for months to resolve space needs.
So when Mr. Zapata writes urging the mayor “to strongly oppose any such idea” because Homestead should become the fair’s home, he aims to undercut an accord in favor of an ouster.
Mr. Zapata surely knows that a study the county, the university and the Youth Fair funded jointly in 2013 and a new study this year both found that the fair would lose more than half its attendance, more than half its operating revenues and most major exhibitors in Homestead and plunge from $2.7 million profit to $300,000 to $800,000 annual losses.
As a commissioner, Mr. Zapata must represent the financial interests of the county. He surely knows that the fair’s land lease beside FIU runs through 2040 with extensions until 2085. Under the lease, the fair must get three-year notice of a move if the county wants one, and then it must get a site equal to or better than its current one. The county is on the hook for such costs by law.
Mr. Zapata says the fair has turned down proposed sites, including Homestead, “despite their absolute viability.”
If viability means losing more than half its attendance and most big exhibitors and plunging from profit to a loss every year he’s right. But its lease says it’s the fair – not the county or FIU or Mr. Zapata – that gets to decide if a site is viable. Had the fair’s board accepted a Homestead financial death knell as viable it wouldn’t have done its job. It didn’t accept. Would you?
We believe the mayor is acting in the public interest in trying to accommodate both sides. We’re certain that he’s acting in the county’s interest in not forcing out the fair, because someone would have to pay for new land, buildings and the move.
The current lease that county commissioners approved says the fair wouldn’t have to pay if the county forced a move. The university doesn’t want to pay to replicate what the fair has.
That leaves the county to pay – except that last year’s referendum dictated that it cannot. So unless the university suddenly finds several hundred million dollars, an agreement must be brokered or the fair will stay put until 2085.
If Mr. Zapata requires immediate action, he should be telling FIU to look elsewhere to add facilities or else give up on trying to grow to 68,000 students this decade. We wonder if he has tried those routes yet.
If he doesn’t want to tell FIU rather than the fair to look elsewhere or shrink aspirations, his best bet is to stop roiling the waters and let the mayor’s office keep working to get everyone onboard with a site-sharing plan.
And remember, a plan can only work if the fair says yes too.