Just like a good neighbor, let FIU play fair with The Fair
Written by Michael Lewis on April 19, 2016
Though Florida International University in its game to expand into Youth Fair land next door holds all the cards, including aces in community goodwill, we suggested a year ago that it not make a power play.
So what’s happening?
For this year’s fair, FIU kept fairgoers from parking on campus most days as they had done for years, when The Fair paid FIU more than $21 per car.
Then FIU closed public access for fairgoers to Southwest 17th Street from 107th to 117th avenues so that it could more easily host a soccer scrimmage seen by about 100 people while The Fair that day was hosting 51,433 customers.
Next, without county permission FIU padlocked county-owned gates between The Fair and FIU.
Following that, President Mark Rosenberg, ignoring the legal lease to The Fair, held a press conference and sent out multiple press releases hailing FIU plans to build an engineering building on the Tamiami Park fairgrounds to which FIU has not one shred of a claim.
University Senior VP Sandra Gonzalez-Levy told the press that “The Fair has outgrown the space and FIU can no longer help make up for it.” Two years ago, to prove that The Fair must move, she told the press that “fairs are kind of dying out.”
And to pressure Mayor Carlos Gimenez to oust The Fair before his November reelection bid, President Rosenberg suggested that the county go to court to evict The Fair, saying “the voters have spoken. And it’s not like the voters haven’t sent a very clear mandate to the political leadership of this community.”
But claiming a clear voter mandate is no more intellectually honest than saying that fairs are dying out while also claiming that The Fair has gotten so big that it must leave.
The “mandate” that FIU repeatedly claims was no mandate at all. Voters in 2014 did legalize FIU use of 64 acres of Tamiami Park where The Fair sits – law had previously barred the school from building in a county park.
But legal use does not equate to a mandate to use it. It’s also legal for FIU to occupy any privately owned land in town and most other public land too, but only if it can cut a deal for the site.
Where is the mandate in that? The vote merely made a deal possible for FIU to use land if The Fair moves, is evicted or shares land with FIU – which The Fair has tried but FIU rejected.
Under The Fair’s lease, if it’s evicted the county must move it to an equal or better site. But the vote that made it legal for FIU to move in if The Fair leaves also bars the county from paying to move The Fair.
So FIU is in a bind: it’s legal to expand, but only by meeting all terms in The Fair’s lease, one being an equal or better site and another being that someone other than The Fair has to build on that site everything that The Fair now has, of equal quality.
With the county forbidden to pay, that leaves FIU to do it. FIU naturally wants to keep costs low, so it unilaterally chose a cheap site for The Fair rather than a suitable one – a choice that by lease belongs to The Fair alone, not the university.
Studies funded jointly by The Fair, the county and FIU show that it would take $230 million to move the Fair. But FIU says with no visible data that $50 million is plenty and it has a fine place, in Homestead.
The Fair’s studies show that the low attendance likely in Homestead, which is far from most of the county’s population, would create large losses every year, but Ms. Gonzalez-Levy says a $50 million move to a dead-end site is “the ideal location.”
The Fair and the county, meanwhile, have been studying three new sites that might work -– but they would cost FIU more money.
FIU wants The Fair’s leased land so that it can grow faster than almost any university ever – adding about 2,000 students a year until it hits 65,000, which would make it the nation’s largest public university. The demand for huge growth comes straight from President Rosenberg.
FIU could expand at another local site or at its north campus on Biscayne Bay, but it won’t consider anywhere but land for which The Fair has a valid lease. It’s all about what FIU wants. That’s not the way an educational institution should position itself. There is no free pass in law just because FIU is a valuable community player and prominent educational institution.
We won’t debate now whether bigger is better in education or whether the county ever should have signed a lease running to 2085.
But The Fair does have a valid lease that FIU isn’t party to. A lease is not a popularity contest. It isn’t created to rip up when a more worthy user shows up. It’s a matter of law, a property right.
When Dr. Rosenberg tells the county to litigate anyway to oust The Fair by ignoring lease terms – one of which is that The Fair get a site equal or better for its needs, not for the needs of FIU – he says FIU won’t repay taxpayers for costs if courts say the county was wrong. Mayor Gimenez says he’d like FIU to get the land but he won’t ignore his financial responsibility to taxpayers.
So FIU has turned to very un-academic tools: turn up the heat until The Fair or the mayor caves in. We have always thought far more highly of Florida International University leaders than that.
Meanwhile, this week The Fair was to award $129,000 in college scholarships to high school seniors, including six to students in the Theater Arts Department at FIU.
Now that’s a good neighbor – until it’s evicted.
Whatever happened to fair play? It’s not too late for FIU to give it a try.