Calming economic waves from Sept. 11 a common theme in chamber's goals
By Paola Iuspa
Easing the local economic effects of new immigration and cargo regulations, creating technology zones to help attract foreign companies and opening a business center for Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs are issues expected to be raised at this week's Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Goals Conference.
When hundreds of members meet at the annual conference from Friday to Sunday at The Breakers in Palm Beach, they will learn about challenges pressing South Floridians and come up with goals to meet them and make improvements.
The three-day event includes a series of committee workshops, group sessions and social events. Jack Lowell, vice chairman of Codina Realty Services, on Saturday will become the chamber's 2002-03 chairman while current Chairman Ramiro Ortiz, president of SunTrust Bank in Miami, will step down. Chairmanships of the chamber's many committees will also change.
William Cullom, the chamber president and CEO, said about 1,000 members are expected to attend the event, but that's 600 less than were registered for last year's meetings, which were held in Miami at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa.
Gilbert Lee Sandler, an immigration and trade attorney heading the immigration committee, said new trade and immigration rules enacted after Sept. 11 to beef up national security were jeopardizing the livelihood of the local economy. He said the chamber would focus on lobbying aggressively to ease a proposal calling to reduce to 30 days an existing three-month tourist visa. The change would discourage foreigners from buying homes or conducting business in Miami because they would need to leave the states shortly, he said.
Mr. Sandler said his group also wants to address a new rule that calls for local law enforcement officers to enforce Immigration & Naturalization Services laws and go after undocumented residents.
"Many voices are on these issues," he said, "and we are one of them. These new measures will affect tourism, investment and international trade because negotiating deals require crossing borders."
J. Antonio Villamil, president of Washington Economics Group Inc. and vice chair of the international economic development committee, said new federal and state regulations could have "unintended consequences" on the local economy. Foreseeing those effects and trying to prevent them is part of the chamber's mission, he said.
A concern affecting international trade, Mr. Sandler said, includes a proposal to reorganize the Immigration & Naturalization Service, which could decrease the number of INS officials in South Florida and slow immigration procedures.
"We want the business community to be involved in the restructuring process," he said. "We would like to be able to look at the plan. We don't want to run the INS program."
Another challenge affecting international trade includes new security measures being drafted by the 48 US border patrol agencies. New procedures to handle cargo are driving up the cost of doing business for exporters and importers in Miami. Other companies unable to comply with the new regulations are considering moving their Latin American hub to a Caribbean country, Mr. Sandler said.
"The federal government says it worries cargo containers would be converted into an instrument of mass destruction," he said, "releasing biological chemicals or causing a nuclear explosion at the Port of Miami. A disaster like that would force the closure of all US ports. We understand that and want to work with the government. But we need an efficient and effective mechanism, and to avoid 48 agencies coming up with 48 incompatible and costly new regimes."
In the technology field, some of the most immediate needs include helping train small business owners to use technology to work more efficiently, said Seth Gordon, vice chairman of the technology committee.
Their level of understanding and appreciation falls very short," he said. "We want this year to narrow that gap. A goal is to design costumed programs to teach them how to access resources and be more effective."
Another goal Mr. Gordon said he expects to come out of brainstorming is making Miami a hub where Internet traffic is exchanged. He also wants Miami to become home to third-generation technology groups such as 3G Americas, a Seattle group that just opened an office here.
Mr. Gordon said 3G Americas, which works with regulatory bodies advocating new policies to affect a now-developing genre of wireless technology, has already contacted the chamber to host seminars, workshops and other events to promote 3G technology.
Mr. Gordon's committee is also committed to creating legislation to allow foreign-based companies to have computer and application servers and store data in Florida's technology centers without being subject to US law, taxes and regulations, said Mr. Gordon, a principal with GDB + Partners, a public relations firm.
"The virtual tech zone would be similar to a free trade zone," he said, referring to complexes close to airports and ports where in-transit merchandise is handled and manufactured without being subject to customs laws. "We want to create something similar for data storage. So if an organization in another country wants to store data here for security reasons, we would let them do that in a special designated zone without making that company subject to taxes and American law."
A goal of the Hispanic business committee, headed by Obdulio Piedra, calls for identification of the top 100 Latin businesses in Florida and promoting a new seminar in March. It would take place a few days before the Calle Ocho Festival to take advantage of the numerous Hispanic entrepreneurs who come to town for that.
Another goal pushed by Mr. Piedra's committee calls for creating a Hispanic business institute in partnership with Miami-Dade Community College's InterAmerican campus in Little Havana. That would be a one-stop shop for those wanting to begin a business but have a language barrier, said Mr. Piedra, a senior vice president of community relations manager at Bank of America.
Heading the international services committee, Jose Rojas with the law firm of Concepcion Rojas & Santos, said one of his group's goals is to revamp a state website that lists service professionals with their area of expertise and contact information.
"We want to convert it into a true one-stop-shop location to facilitate international business exports from Florida providers," he said. The new website, with its format to be announced at the goals conference, would allow registered viewers to post and answer request for proposals and make matchmaking appointments, he said.
Walter Revell, chair of the environmental committee, said goals he would like to see come out of the conference include lobbying and looking for funding for planned and undergoing programs such as the $7.8 billion Everglades restoration; the $70 million dredging of the Miami River, for which a contract may be awarded this fall; the preservation of Biscayne Bay, and redevelopment of brownfields.
He said his committee's annual award program, where a company is recognized for doing good environmental work, will take place in September - instead of during the goals conference as in the past.