25 years later, Miami’s biggest issues still challenge us
Twenty-five years ago to kick off 1996 I listed 10 pivotal challenges for Miami. A quarter century later they still represent about half the vital conundrums we face.
Former Coral Gables mayor Donald Slesnick reminded me of the column, which I had forgotten – thank you, Don. On reflection, those 10 challenges still apply, and new examples illustrate their importance.
They began with:
PUBLIC LANDS USE: Control over our public lands has often been more a question of who will hand commissioners the most perks for a pet project or offer the most promises that never seem to be fulfilled. Often, those vows involve, of all things, soccer.
Remember, for example, that the Miami Heat’s arena on public bayfront acres was marketed with drawings of never-built public soccer fields on two sides. When Miami handed its Virginia Key land over for boat show use, it showed four soccer fields on the land, then later said the land couldn’t be leveled for soccer – though it somehow became perfectly level for its permanent paved parking lot.
Now Miami is trying to hand over to developers its only golf course for a massive multi-use project that includes a professional soccer stadium. Part of the sales pitch is that public-use soccer fields will sit atop office buildings in the complex. If the deal is ever made – which it shouldn’t be – remember that promise.
PUBLIC FUNDS USE: We still have the problem we had in 1996 in using limited public resources to undertake meaningful capital projects that provide taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck.
The county still owes billions in principal and interest for building Marlins Stadium, which was sold as a way to markedly expand baseball attendance and reinvigorate the surrounding Little Havana. It barely budged the needle on either count. Those monies could have served dozens of better uses.
COORDINATION: As was the case in 1996, it’s still every public and private organization for itself on major public issues. We’re still waiting for every civic group and government agency to unite in a coordinated attack on the economic fallout of Covid-19. Everything now is piecemeal.
We couldn’t even get the state and local governments onto the same page on health issues with such basics as curfews, openings and closings in a concerted effort to tamp down the spread of the virus. Nor did we get a unified menu of grants to help businesses and individuals hit by the fallout from the disease.
OUTREACH: A major concern for decades has been the us-versus-them division in the Legislature between Miami-Dade and the rest of Florida. The only change in the past quarter century has been that we changed the name from Dade to Miami-Dade.
As for the governor, it took many weeks for him to even talk to the mayors of Miami-Dade and of its cities, much less return their phone calls about Covid-19 concerns.
Often Tallahassee and Miami don’t seem to even be on the same planet. The state’s largest city and state government need to at least talk.
SECURITY: Of all the 10 original concerns, we’ve made the greatest progress in safeguarding residents. Still, this concern is going to get larger if the county’s lamentable economic inequality gulf grows wider.
EDUCATION: I wrote 25 years ago that “we must set classroom standards to the level we need, not the level we have,” referring to local graduates who are less prepared for the world of complex jobs and professions than those in other areas. An A student in Miami-Dade might not be an A student in the Northeast.
That carries through to attainments at all levels. As we note in a news story this week, Miami-Dade’s levels of attained education rank far behind the nation as a whole.
The US Census found last month that 19.7% of our residents over 25 had failed to finish high school versus 11.4% nationally. As for those who are college graduates, 30.7% of over-25 adults here have done that, but in the nation as a whole the figure is 33.1%. We are generally under-educated.
If we want top-paying jobs to flow in and change the game, we need a workforce that is ready to fill them.
INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONS: In an increasingly international community, the dozens of consulates and trade offices based here remain a tremendous untapped resource. Who greets a new consul general – the top representative of a foreign government – and puts our community’s best foot forward?
Nor do we tap foreign expertise based here. When the consul general of the Netherlands a few years ago repeatedly offered help to local governments in containing sea level rise – a concern with which the Netherlands has long contended and is expert – she got a brush-off, not encouragement. Other consuls general tell similar stories. Yet our business community, our trade and our tourism are built on links abroad.
SUPPORT OF THE ARTS: With the fallout of Covid-19 battering arts groups, their support should be front and center. Venues large and small and our performance and exhibiting groups all have great need now.
How do we fund and keep the best alive and strong – or do we dribble out funds among more than a thousand organizations, giving far too little to each to make a difference? It’s a significant decision and a significant commitment.
DOWNTOWN’S DIRECTION: In 1996 downtown Miami was looking toward a performing arts center, a basketball arena, seaport expansion and a resurrection of the Omni area. We since got them all – in fact, we got one basketball arena that soon after was torn down for a bigger second one.
What we weren’t counting on then was downtown becoming a vast high-rise residential home for real workers, as it did.
Now, instead of the dead city center 25 years ago we have a vibrant hub. That in turn brought an urban concentration nobody forecast. The challenge now is to keep downtown from overwhelming itself while also using well its office space that is now facing a work-at-home world complete with rapid office downsizing.
LEADERSHIP: 1996 was the end of the era of strong civic leadership by a clique of powerful business leaders who directed activities of our key civic organizations. Government at that time played second fiddle, and weakly at that.
Now we lack cohesive civic leadership. Most corporate headquarters are gone. Those remaining reject the mantle of leadership. That gives more clout to local government, particularly county hall, in determining where we are heading. We still await the needed visionary leadership in those halls of government.
Are these 10 concerns problems or are they opportunities? All 10 point not to unsolvable problems but to improvements that we in Miami-Dade County are perfectly capable of making, if we will.
Next week we’ll focus on 10 more major issues that weren’t on the radar 25 years ago but are equally capable of becoming game-changers that we can achieve.