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Written by on February 19, 2009

FYI

Miami is a weekly feature of Miami Today, keeping readers ahead

of the news. Here are highlights from the most current edition.

   84 AND COUNTING: Nearly a week before the Feb. 16 deadline, 84 people had applied to head Miami-Dade’s new Office of Economic Development Coordination, created last year. It’s "the principal department for coordinating and integrating Miami-Dade County government’s various economic development initiatives in pursuit of the county’s strategic economic development goals," the job ad says. The director would get $117,124 to $189,446 a year. Applicants must hold a bachelor’s and have 10 years of "progressively responsible professional experience in regional economic development or related field," the ad says. Mayor Carlos Alvarez is to appoint the director, whom Manager George Burgess will oversee.

   HIGHER STANDARD: A super majority, or nine votes, of Miami-Dade commissioners could soon be required for donations of county-owned land or buildings to non-profit entities. The proposal from Commissioner Katy Sorenson cleared the Government Affairs Committee Friday. The measure puts the same rules on the land donations that apply to bid waivers on county contracts, she said. "Land is valuable. We should do it [give it away] only under a lot of scrutiny." Commissioner Natacha Seijas agreed, and predicted the tougher vote requirement will help the county avoid "consequences we’d rather not have."

   SHARING A VISION: Much is at stake in the updating of Miami-Dade government’s strategic plan, including its vision for the future, guiding principles and resource allocations. The strategic plan, first formulated in 2004, must be ratified by the commission. But the makeup of the updated plan is up to Mayor Carlos Alvarez. Commissioners are hoping he’ll let them take part in the update beyond voting on it. "It is critical that the priorities of the revised and updated strategic plan are truly the priorities of the board," said a resolution sponsored by Natacha Seijas and endorsed by the Government Affairs Committee Friday without comment.

   NEW DEADLINE SOUGHT: Ms. Seijas’s resolution asks the mayor to develop the plan in "close coordination" with the commission and give the governing body time to review, discuss and suggest revisions. The resolution asks for an extension beyond the April ratification deadline so the commission and its committees can help shape the plan.

   OUT OF DEBT: Thanks to a $30 million gift from philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, the Performing Arts Center Trust, policymaking body for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, has repaid its $14 million construction loan seven years ahead of schedule, said trust Chairman J. Ricky Arriola. "This makes us debt free. It makes a significant impact on our cash flow and frees us from making interest payment." The move is expected to save the trust "over several hundred thousand dollars" in interest, freeing cash for the center’s cultural and educational programs.

   GABLES SHOWDOWN: The Coral Gables City Commission is to meet Friday to interview five candidates for the vacant city manager post. After private interviews with each candidate, the commission is to convene at 3 p.m. to publicly discuss the selection. Spokesperson Maria Rosa Higgins Fallon said the city could have a manager by day’s end or be headed back to the beginning of the process. The commission was "a little hesitant with the list of candidates presented," she said. "Unless [the commission is] convinced they’ve found the right person, they’re going to go back and do some more searching."

   AND THE NOMINEES ARE: Steven Crowell, city manager of North Port, FL; Joe Rasco, intergovernmental affairs director for Miami-Dade County; Patrick Salerno, former Sunrise city manager; Larry Spring, City of Miami chief financial officer; and Buford "Randy" Witt, retired Army brigadier general. The meeting will be televised live on Coral Gables Television, Channel 77, and online at www.coralgables.com.

   LOOKING FOR LUCKY 13: There’s an open seat on Florida International University’s Board of Trustees. Rosa Sugrañes, chairman of Barcelona-based Iberia Tile, said she resigned because she couldn’t attend most meetings. "Since last year I have been traveling a lot to Spain where I have my family business," she wrote in an e-mail. "I felt uncomfortable that I was not able to contribute in the way that I have been for the last 12 years." She first served on the university’s foundation board and was later appointed to the board of trustees by the State University System’s Board of Governors. According to the university’s Web site, those wishing to be considered for the seat should visit www.flbog.org/aboutsus/ubt.php. 

   ART ACHE: The recession has claimed another victim. Sotheby’s Coral Gables office at 800 Douglas Road closed in late January due to a slumping global art market, according to Regional Representative Axel Stein. The closing, however, isn’t indicative of the strength of the South Florida art market. "This isn’t a developing market anymore. Florida’s ranked fifth in the union in terms of [art] sales," Mr. Stein said. "We’re going to be working with [clients in] Florida out of New York City." He said he would continue working with Sotheby’s but the office’s two other employees were laid off. He later said he believed the economy was nearing bottom and that the art market, as well as Sotheby’s, would survive.

   NO HUNG JURY: Miami-Dade commissioners don’t seem surprised by a grand jury conclusion that the county "oversold" its People’s Transportation Plan of projects backed by a half-percent sales tax that voters approved in 2002. At a Transit, Infrastructure & Roads Committee meeting last week, they referenced the findings, but not defensively. Since last year, commissioners have openly called the plan "over-promised" after finding that the transit department faces a multi-billion gap over the next 30 years. At the direction of now-Commission Chair Dennis Moss, they held a transportation summit in November to, as he called it, take their licks. Many acknowledge the need for major adjustments in order to maintain the current system and provide promised projects, as the jury determined. Barbara Jordan stressed the need for changes in opening the meeting, her first as committee chair.

   TRUTH ABOUT TRANSIT: A "Truth about Transit" workshop is coming down the pike to address Miami-Dade Transit issues, Ms. Jordan said. She plans to ask the transit department to provide its financials and explain its budget issues. Commissioners agreed to raise fares last year to help close a gap and more changes are coming, Ms. Jordan said. "Some highly political and unpopular decisions will have to be made if we want to properly fund transit — or, we can rest on our mediocrity and allow routes to continue to be eliminated, thereby having no transit system at all." Now, 75% of users ride free or at a discount, she said. "We will need to seriously consider some of our funding structures and how we maximize the revenue in transit."

   TOKENS NO MORE: Automated transit fare collection is on the way. Miami-Dade commissioners at a transit committee meeting last week agreed to modify the fare schedule, beginning by reflecting last year’s fare hike, phasing out tokens and taking housekeeping measures. The new system will let riders use debit card-like passes to ride buses or rail, and even to park at rail stations, eliminating tokens and paper transfers and reducing opportunities for payment fraud. Cards for frequent riders are to cost $2. From there, riders load fare money onto the card, which lasts three years. Visitors and infrequent riders can get a 60-day card free, then load in fare money. Machines to replenish the cards are to be at all Metromover stations and potentially at major retailers. Riders will also be able to replenish cards online. The county will kick off the program with 500,000 free cards. All equipment is expected to be installed by summer.

   QUICK STIMULUS: As federal lawmakers approve a plan to pump money into infrastructure and other projects, Miami-Dade commissioners are asking that funds go straight to localities rather than via state governments. Local governments have plenty of projects ready to go, Natacha Seijas said at a Transit, Infrastructure & Roads Committee meeting last week. "They’re planned out, they have budgets, they have people." Agreed Barbara Jordan, "we do want to try to eliminate any additional approval process." Carlos Gimenez said he wants the money handed to localities in block grants. "I think that’s the easiest way to really get the money flowing as quickly as possible." When Ms. Jordan clarified that the state distributes block grants, he quickly nixed the wording, clarifying that: "I just want a bunch of money that just comes here, and then we determine how to best spend it as fast as we can."

   STIMULUS READY?: Miami Commissioner Tomás Regalado last week asked for a report on how the city administration is preparing to go after the federal stimulus that’s on the way, "because, you know, there will be fights from 67 counties to get that stimulus money." He said Florida is getting about $10 billion and the state will keep most of it. City Manager Pete Hernandez said city lobbyists in Tallahassee and Washington are following the process. He said the city is prepared to jump as soon more information regarding eligibility for funds is released. George Mensah, director of community development, said some of the money will go through the state and other funds are to be distributed through federal and local agencies. "We are ready to start applying to bring funding to the city."

   BACK TO BAGHDAD: Retired Army Reserve colonel and former Coral Gables chamber of Commerce president Lettie Bien will be returning to Iraq for a six- to nine-month term as a civilian adviser to the Multinational Force Corps. Col. Bien, who retired after 30 years in the Reserves, served a tour in Iraq in 2005. She followed that with a stint at the Pentagon. In 2007, she spearheaded fundraising for the construction of a Fisher House, where families of recuperating veterans can stay while visiting loved ones. "I look forward to coming home and continuing to serve our country and our citizenry — whether locally or nationally," she said in an e-mail. She’s expecting to depart in mid-March.

   SACASA REMOVED: Federico Sacasa, who was a Miami executive for four banks, was ousted last week as chief executive of Japan’s Aozora Bank, a mid-sized bank 45% owned by US private equity group Cerberus. He’d been chief executive there a year after stints in Washington, DC, as executive director of Caribbean Central American Action from 2002 to 2005 and president of the organization from 2005 to 2007. In 1999 he was named Bank of America’s Latin America group director in Miami when the bank moved the operation here from San Francisco. Earlier stints here were with Banco Nacional de Nicaragua, Banco del Crédito del Perú and Wells Fargo Bank.

   EXPEDITE PAYMENTS: Vendors and contractors may see payments from Miami-Dade County faster in light of the troubled economy. The idea is that once vendors receive their money, they expedite payments to their subcontractors, employees and community based organizations. Commissioners on the Housing & Community Development Committee voted last week with no discussion to direct the administration to propose a strategy to expedite payment. "Our community is facing one of its most serious economic challenges in the last several decades… in such a time, the role of community based organizations becomes all the more vital as jobs are lost, private-sector donations are harder to come by and demands on social services increases," the measure says. These times "call for an infusion of funds into the community to help stabilize the economy." The full commission must still act on the measure. If it gets the OK, the administration must submit its report 30 days after.

   SPEND IT HERE: Joe Sanchez chairs the Miami City Commission, but lately he’s taken on an increased economic development role. He seized the opportunity at last Thursday’s meeting to boost the city’s lodging sector, suggesting an overnight stay to an out-of-town consultant on hand to advise the city on its Coconut Grove Business District. "Can we talk to you about staying overnight? We need the bed tax," he said. The next day, Mr. Sanchez opened a special meeting of the commission by urging a Valentines Day spending stimulus for the city. "Get your wife or spouse a gift — hopefully, in the city of Miami," he told the crowd in commission chambers.

   WYNWOOD TO NAIROBI: Mark Coetzee, who for eight years has been the director of the Rubell Family Collection of art in Wynwood, is heading for Nairobi, Kenya, as program director of PUMAvision and chief curator of puma.creative for sport lifestyle company PUMA, based in Germany.

   LOOKING BACK: A record number of overnight visitors came to Miami-Dade in 2008 despite global economic challenges that intensified as the year wore on. For the year, overnight visitor totals rose 1.4%, spurred largely by a 5.4% rise in international visitors to a record 5,787,200, who were moved in large part by favorable exchange rates, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. However, domestic visitors dipped 2% to 6,341,400.

   MINORITY ADVANCEMENT: Gov. Charlie Crist has called on Adora Obi Nweze of Miami to serve as special adviser on minority affairs. Ms. Nweze is to serve as a representative for the state’s minorities by advising him on strategies to ensure that Florida’s government is accessible to these populations. She is to continue as president of the Florida State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The appointment is believed to be the first state partnership with the NAACP through an official appointment in the administration. As special adviser to the governor on minority affairs, Ms. Nweze will make recommendations on ways to advance minority-population participation in and access to state government, according to a news release.

   HOUSING RELIEF: Miami city commissioners last week approved a plan for spending a $12 million federal grant slated to combat Miami’s foreclosure plague. George Mensah, head of community development, said he also plans to quickly appoint a taskforce made up of commission-nominated members. Chairman Joe Sanchez clarified that the funds are targeted to save neighborhoods, not mortgages, and said bad decision-making by some banks is now affecting the public. "Some of these banks are not meeting their responsibilities. They are walking away and neighbors are paying the cost," he said. "Those house values affect the property values of homes in those neighborhoods."

   MANAGER’S POWER: The commission also handed City Manager Pete Hernandez power to buy and lease properties using the federal millions. The money is designated to redevelop abandoned and foreclosed homes. Mr. Sanchez said commissioners are allowing Mr. Hernandez to buy land without their say-so to fast-track the process — Washington is asking cities to commit the money within 18 months of getting a check.

   AIR RIGHTS FEE: The Miami City Commission passed an ordinance last week to begin charging developers a fee for using the air rights over public streets. Chairman Joe Sanchez pushed for the measure, saying it is a money-raising opportunity amidst looming city budget cuts. Before, the code required property owners to make beautification improvements in return for using the air rights, he said, but now a fee formula makes those benefits more tangible.

   FEE OVERHAUL: Miami continues a study of fees assessed businesses and residents alike and hopes to complete the review in May, city officials say. Budget Director Michael Boudreaux said the study is looking at consolidating some fees to simplify the ordinance. Commission Chairman Joe Sanchez agreed it’s important to simplify. "No one wants to stop charging fees, but simplifying it (the process) so small businesses who are struggling have to fill out two applications instead of 20."

   CITY APOLOGY: Miami has gone into damage control after strong criticism from the public this month for its handling of a fire-rescue recruitment. More than 1,000 people lined up to apply for firefighter jobs, a sign of high unemployment. City Manager Pete Hernandez extended the application deadline to Feb. 20 and the Miami Parking Authority vowed to relieve people of any citations or parking tickets received at the city building that day. Some 750 qualified applicants will get a shot at filling the 35 openings.

   NEWLY ELECTED: Shelly Fano has been elected vice chairperson of the Visitor Industry Council. She also directs hospitality management programs at Miami Dade College. The council has awarded 180 scholarships to students aspiring to careers in hospitality management, tourism management and culinary arts. Financial support has totaled more than $2.5 million to African-American students and students of African descent from throughout the Caribbean and the diaspora.

   TRANSWESTERN EXEC: Andi Lopez has joined Transwestern’s South Florida office as vice president of management services, responsible for all property management, operations, and accounting and reporting services in the region. She most recently spent 10 years with Colonnade Properties, where she helped acquire Douglas Entrance, a five-building, 465,000-square-foot-office property.

   BETTING ON BUILDINGS: Former Cervera Real Estate Vice President Andres Asion has created brokerage and consulting firm Miami Real Estate Group. He said he has seven people on board, with plans to eventually have 30 agents represent local and international developers in "sales through the embryonic stage to closing." In addition to advising developers, he said the firm will represent investors looking to take advantage of a depressed real estate market. "We have buyers looking to pull the trigger and are going through the due diligence process right now," he said. "If the price is right they’ll do well. It doesn’t matter if [they're] looking at a shopping center or any building in the area. I think the people who have the cash can pick [the properties] they want."

   PARK ON WHEELS: Passive Biscayne Park is about to see a lot more action. The city is rolling out plans to build a skating facility. Commissioners last month approved the parks department request for $1 million to design and construct a skate park at 150 NE 19th St. to encourage active use of the park. The Omni Community Redevelopment Agency awarded a $1 million grant for the work.

   PLAY BALL: The World Baseball Classic March 14-18 at Dolphin Stadium will host up to six games of Round 2′s Pool 2 double-elimination play. This round will feature four countries that emerge from earlier play among the US, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Panama. Tickets are available at Florida.Marlins.mlb.com.

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