Battle of the Fairgrounds already ugly enough; stop it now
Written by Michael Lewis on November 1, 2016
Florida International University’s six-year power play to force the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition off land beside its main campus so that the 44-year-old school can expand to become the nation’s largest public university is getting even uglier.
The university last month implied that if the fair won’t vacate county parkland it has under lease and move to far south Miami-Dade, the university might sue the county to break the fair’s contract.
Fair officials responded with legalities of their own, writing that FIU is not a party to the fair-county contract and must stop improperly interfering with that agreement. Contract interference could be the basis for a legal case against FIU.
That leaves three pillars of our community – our county government, our public university and our county fair – rattling sabers in a war over land.
The fair’s home is under a very favorable, perfectly legal lease that the county granted through 2085. The fair started using the land in 1971, and the university opened the next year.
But next door, the university is itching to expand. It says it can go nowhere except the fair site, which is questionable because it holds classes elsewhere and has added more sites. But it finds the fairgrounds appealing because it hopes to get them free.
FIU got a referendum passed in 2014 to make it legal to operate on the fairgrounds – if FIU can cut a deal to move the fair out. But the vote said the county can’t pay any costs of moving or finding the fair a new site with proper buildings. That leaves FIU to pay.
But the fair is hanging tough. Its lease says it can only be forced out if it gets an equal or better site and someone else pays to replace or upgrade its structures. The contract, however, doesn’t spell out what an adequate replacement must be.
FIU, the fair and the county have been debating this for years. The fair has long agreed to move if it’s left in equal position. The battle has been that FIU wants to be sole judge of what is best for the fair – and the fair isn’t buying what FIU is selling.
The fair, the university and the county jointly funded a study that rated sites and found that the fair would lose massive attendance and money in a move to Homestead, yet FIU is saying that Homestead is the ideal and only site for the fair – because FIU must pay for the move and the Homestead site is all it can afford.
Naturally, the fair doesn’t want to sign its own death warrant in that move. It has offered to share its present site with FIU, and the fair and the university have met to work on that. But FIU President Mark Rosenberg says that’s too expensive – he just wants the fair out of his hair and in Homestead, as he told the fair by letter.
Some people argue that the university serves more people and is more important to Miami-Dade than the fair, which hosted more than 600,000 people this year and has year-round events on site besides.
If importance to the community were the criterion, we’d agree that a large public university would rank ahead of a fair – but that definitely is not the issue.
The fact is that the fair has a legitimate property right in a lease it signed with county government. FIU has no right of eminent domain that supersedes the county or the fair and is in fact no part of that contract.
Property rights do not depend on who is bigger or more worthy or more important. They’re based on who has the right to the property. It’s a basic tenet of our form of government.
As for expansion, FIU certainly has that right, though its aim to grow to what would be the largest US public university places size far ahead of quality. We’d wish FIU aimed to raise its rankings to befit its present size and to graduate students far better prepared for their future and for the community’s needs.
But those are not the apparent aims. FIU wants land not to get better but to get bigger.
Well, let FIU pursue its path to massive growth. But that path cannot trample property rights – or, indeed, the right of its neighbor to maintain the fair’s present size and economic health.
Certainly, too, the university that we all hope will be a major force for better education should not put itself in the improper position of threatening to try to break a contract to which it is not a party. No wonder fair President and CEO Robert Hohenstein raised concerns about illegal contract interference. What else could you call what the university is trying to do?
The fair has lived up to its name – playing fair. Though it’s not required to do so, it has offered to share its site. President Rosenberg says no, just get out of your home and head for 127 county-owned acres in Homestead, where a much-diminished fair in an agriculture center can become an adjunct to FIU.
Unfortunately for us all, FIU is building a good case for the fair to sue our public university for substantial damages that the university can’t afford to pay.
To prove intentional contract interference, the fair must show that it has a valid contract with the county, which it does; that FIU knows about the contract, which is does; that the university acted intentionally, which it certainly is doing, and improperly, which the court would decide; and that the fair was injured, which it assuredly will be if FIU tries to break its contract.
We had hoped that a cooperative agreement would see a sharing of the fairgrounds. The university says no, it wants them all so get out.
The next best hope is that FIU trustees recalibrate their aims to say that 65,000 students in the next few years may not be as important as having the present 55,000 get better educations – gains measured not in added acreage and number of new buildings but in educational attainment. We’d like higher national educational rankings for FIU, not higher enrollment totals.
But if it must expand, FIU should start looking at its north campus on Biscayne Bay or other vacant land, or make better use of its current campus. Maybe it should emulate the University of Miami with off-campus football, because Miami has plenty of stadiums. FIU should get as creative with land it already has as it is with county land that’s leased to the fair.
But whatever course FIU chooses, it should not deem that the fair is somehow less worthy of existence and so must be sent by whatever means to wither and die to let FIU expand. That course can only end up in court and in the end diminish the county, the fair and the university.
Hasn’t this battle gotten ugly enough already?