Shrinking government aid, building jobs challenge chamber
By Michael Lewis
Three themes echoed in last week's Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce goals conference, one recurring, one looking forward in hope, one gazing behind in trepidation.
Recurring was the need to improve the living and business environment despite less help from a shrinking government wallet.
In breakouts on specific topics, forward thought pointed to fueling the One Community One Goal drive to expand our economy.
Backward looks found the specter or bonanza — varying by speaker — of mega-casinos, which died in the legislature but will return.
The conference lured hundreds of leaders and future leaders who in past years set goals for committees.
Members in specialized sessions would jockey, then coalesce around goals, ending in a vote for the top six to enter overall chamber aims. Cheers echoed as groups reported goals in the final session.
That's what used to happen.
This year, those in meetings pushed ideas as usual. But nobody voted or reported to the full membership, which departed with no idea what goals leaders will set later.
Members heard no reason for the change, which removed a semblance of a democracy. But in the past, some who pushed through time-consuming goals never lifted a finger later. Advocates packed meetings for a cause that others were left to achieve. As a result, goals flopped.
This year, leaders can assess resources and target aims that not only have merit but might succeed.
That's vital, because some who sought action can't lead themselves.
After asking the New World Center committee, which is geared to strengthen downtown, to seek a conference center, Javier Betancourt, Downtown Development Authority deputy director, said the chamber, not the authority, would have to champion the authority's goal.
He never said so, but it's politics in action.
The vast funding gulf between community needs and government wallets was clear.
Educators decried shrinking per-student aid, and schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho noted an inequitable state distribution of what money there is, short-changing Miami-Dade year after year.
Transportation gurus Servando Parapar and Joe Yesbeck cited a gap in adequate lanes to link the Port of Miami tunnel and the highways that must carry its traffic. Mr. Yesbeck said a linking bridge is under design but still not funded, with the tunnel due to open in 2014.
Science museum Executive Director Gillian Thomas and others noted that while work is advancing on two museums in Museum Park, parkland itself is woefully underfunded to meet plans.
The broad push for One Community One Goal is welcome, because while this economy-building program's first incarnation in the 1990s was a chamber project, the Beacon Council spearheads today's.
Rivalries over who could claim credit for convening leaders and using the synergy to build jobs might have been a barrier. Without buy-in by the chamber and others, the effort would fail.
But groundwork has been solid, and leaders in group sessions not only hailed the effort but showed how closely they had tied their own aims to it.
Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg, Dr. Carvalho and other educators pinpointed changes they're making in curricula to help One Community succeed.
Outgoing chamber chair Penny Shaffer, market president of Florida Blue, told Friday's general session that that the original One Community drive sprang from the chamber and that this round kicked off at last year's goals conference. "The work on One Community One Goal," she said, "is and will be our opportunity to redefine and reinvent ourselves."
New Chairman Phillis Oeters of Baptist Health South Florida said the job-building plan will only succeed if every community group takes part, calling for "everyone walking arm in arm to make this city the great place that it can be."
As for mega-gambling, despite its defeat after the chamber backed it, the conference indicated that the chamber still embraces the drive to create a mega-casino where the Miami Herald and the chamber itself now sit.
Ms. Shaffer cited three chamber-wide surveys backing casinos, though in fact the surveys in specialized meetings never polled all members. She stressed that more than three-quarters of those polled favored the casinos.
And a video of chamber accomplishments — one that each year focuses on the outgoing chairman — was shot in part in Las Vegas, where Ms. Shaffer walked past and through casinos and lamented "We could have had it all."
We'll trust that new leaders look forward to building our community, not to Las Vegas for inspiration.
While some might note that the chamber's low-rent landlord is a Malaysian mega-casino juggernaut, most goal suggestions weren't self-serving, either for the chamber or its members.
For decades, the Greater Miami Chamber has championed efforts to aid those least able to help themselves, on the theory that a better community builds a better business environment. Few chambers have been so selfless.
Chamber members still aim a good percentage of efforts at such programs. If a rising tide lifts all boats, member businesses benefit as well, but that's hard to categorize as self-interest.
In an election year, fewer officeholders were visible. County hall sent an outpouring of paid staff but few elected leaders. Katy Sorenson was active as usual, but she's no longer a commissioner. Others were hard to spot.
A sign of hope: ages of attendees trended younger. As key organizations' leaders near retirement, qualified young candidates should be plentiful.
Such future leaders aren't shy. In the New World Center meeting, Marielena Villamil, president and CEO of the Washington Economics Group, suggested changing the committee name to Downtown. Three participants quickly agreed, saying they attended despite having no idea what the New World Center is.
If they put in time blindly, they really want to play a role.
With the challenges we face and our gap in resources, we'll need them in action — but with a clearer roadmap to follow.
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