Chamber needs true grit to combat community's dragons
By Michael Lewis
This weekend marks a crossroads, an invitation for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce to set a forceful countywide agenda in its annual Goals Conference.
As members set their own goals, they can simultaneously sculpt priorities for a county that long looked to the chamber as its de facto leader.
We sure can use its good leadership.
Incoming chairman Hank Klein of Cushman & Wakefield will step into a civic minefield of explosive issues, a situation outgoing chairman Adolfo Henriques and his predecessors also faced.
The issues may change, but the battlefield's dangers don't.
Forty years ago, when the chamber was reborn after years of weakness, a handful of top-level executives set agendas for Miami and by-and-large met them, conscripting their business peers into battle. They attacked tough issues without fear, creating for the chamber a powerhouse reputation.
In recent decades, a vastly expanded and more democratic chamber has hop-scotched between the mines, doing battle where it could build consensus and avoid controversy.
It has fought valiantly and well against enemies without defenders — social inequities, economic downturns, havoc wreaked by hurricanes, massive unemployment caused by corporate disasters or departures. It has fought for the common good — better schools, funds for transportation, support for culture.
In those efforts, it has had praiseworthy success as a powerful and united force for this community.
But these were challenges where chamber members could speak with one voice. If I had the collective ear of Mr. Klein and his leadership team, I'd ask for more controversy.
What if the chamber also set its course to meet goals that not all members could agree upon? To my mind, jousting in the civic arena would both enhance the luster of a chamber that recently had to overcome its own financial crises and do community service that no one else dares.
Those hard issues call for action even though other power centers might push back. That's not unhealthy. It means entering the political battle for minds, dollars and achievement.
Worthy efforts might:
nEnsure that county sales taxes for transportation are properly controlled. That might discomfit county officials who want to oversee funds voters were promised would be kept out of officials' grasp. Because the chamber fought for the tax, it should fight to protect the proceeds.
nSeek an independent authority to oversee airports. As Miami International Airport's expansion cost overruns soar to billions though the scope of the work diminishes, a truly independent authority could help protect the region's most powerful economic engine, which now sputters on weak fuel. The chamber has avoided the airport issue for years because it can't get unanimity.
nStrive to funnel limited funds for infrastructure into targeted projects rather than blessing each and every proposed stadium and museum and performance hall and tunnel as though all are equal. This strong chamber could undertake a triage: decide which projects are worthy of public monies, which should go it alone and which, sorry to say, cannot exist without eviscerating the others. No area of the minefield is more dangerous, but priorities are imperative.
nBuild the business and civic engine to keep our performing-arts center running. That requires strong leaders, even someone who has actually run something this big before. The job requires far more than just asking the county for more cash. Stepping into this debate, too, would take courage.
nMap a future for arts and cultural groups after the Legislature slashes taxes that fuel them. Local governments will cut cultural grants early on. Where's the safety net? (Hint: Think triage again, because it's better to keep some groups strong than to starve all equally.)
Those are all ticking bombs for the chamber to defuse. Others include workforce housing, quality of education, the insurance crunch, community goal-setting and how to spread opportunity to all.
Then there's the most controversial: Improve county government. Goad an upcoming charter review to suggest changes in county structure. The chamber wouldn't thank me for suggesting battle with county hall dragons, but the alternative is for all of us to just moan about government. As the charter is analyzed, the chamber should push its agenda.
We live in a paralyzed county. The mayor who would be king won the honor at the polls but hasn't assumed the throne. The commission that would duel the mayor finds nothing to combat. Leadership is as absent as it was before the strong-mayor election.
The chamber can help fill the void. It cannot do this without some friction, and Mr. Klein and his leadership teammates are not by nature abrasive.
Let's hope they find a little grit.