Transportation and affordable housing, two of the region’s most pressing problems, were at the forefront of Wednesday’s Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce 2017 Goals Conference, as elected officials from both Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami committed to prioritizing a proposed link in the county’s southern corridor.
Addressing the opening session, Gene Schaefer, new chairman and Bank of America’s Miami market president, ranked traffic as one of the community’s top challenges and noted the scarcity of convenient, affordable workforce housing. This year’s conference, an annual gathering for high-profile business leaders, also addressed entrepreneurship, rising sea levels, and medical marijuana.
In his opening remarks at the Hilton’s Miami Airport Convention Center, immediate past Chairman Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, reflected on the “whirlwind” year and doing business in today’s political climate.
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“Within our chambers, there were some incredible debates and discussions of this year,” Rosenberg said. “Post-truth. Youth violence. Too much healthcare. Not enough healthcare. New taxes. No new taxes. Tolls. No tolls. Global warming. No global warming. Cuba opening. No Cuba opening. Travel to Cuba... or stay home?”
Despite the turmoil, Rosenberg said, the chamber kept its cool and found “high neutral ground for thoughtful and passionate debate, discussion and solutions-oriented decision-making.”
Rosenberg also celebrated significant progress in uniting Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties around a common agenda of regional transit.
One of the day’s most popular sessions focused on the need for transportation infrastructure — a hot topic given Miami’s notorious traffic. Panelists — including representatives from government and private enterprise — remarked on traffic’s negative impact on the region’s commerce and economic growth.
The current transit system was designed in the 1970s when the county population was one million, and now faces severe congestion as the population has expanded to 2.7 million.
Within our chambers, there were some incredible debates and discussions of this year.
Mark Rosenberg, who is immediate past chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and is president of Florida International University
“We are a victim of our own success,” said panelist Francis Suarez, a City of Miami commissioner.
Suarez and Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo, both members of the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization board, committed to prioritizing the southern corridor as the first step toward implementing the proposed Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) plan, which would expand the mass transit system by about 80 miles.
“When you have what they call low-lying fruit, you have to take it,” Suarez said. “We do need a win in this community. We need to regain [public] confidence.”
A separate panel addressed the need for affordable workforce housing. As population has increased and developers have catered to luxury buyers, well-located housing has become increasingly scarce. With housing prices pushing out some locals, businesses are struggling to find workers.
Manny Diaz, former City of Miami mayor, said the community needs to address income inequality rather than create low-cost units, especially given the lack of government funding for housing projects. “The real issue here is the issue of the median income,” he said, saying better education and employment opportunities are needed.
Michael Liu, Miami Dade County’s executive director of Housing and Community Development, also suggested government work more closely with businesses to reduce development time and cost. Diana Elliot, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, suggested government could offer tax credits and incentives to encourage existing mom-and-pop landlords to hold onto their real estate rather than selling to speculators.
Harold Price, executive director of Florida Housing Finance Corp., suggested that concerned citizens should protest government raids of the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund, which allocates money for workforce residences. “The biggest thing is to get to know your legislature and get them educated on the issue of affordable housing.”
A new addition to this year’s conference was the panel on medical marijuana. The discussion comes on the heels of a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana that passed in November with 71 percent of voter support.
“There’s a lot of support for the medical use of marijuana, both locally and statewide,” Rosenberg told the Miami Herald, when asked about the panel. “The chamber aspires to relevance. It’s a very relevant and important issue for the business and healthcare communities.”
The biggest thing is to get to know your legislature and get them educated on the issue of affordable housing.
Harold Price, executive director of Florida Housing Finance Corp.
This year’s conference followed last year’s format, moving away from actual goal-setting and focusing instead on discussion of issues. Goals are now set by chamber committees, which spend months examining data and establishing priorities.
More than 600 signed up for the two-day meeting, which continues Thursday with a panel on global warming.
Even as the day focused heavily on the region’s current problems, speakers reminded attendees that many of these issues are caused by area’s popularity and accomplishments. “We are in the best city in the best country on the planet. This is the place. People want to be here, people want to move here, people want to raise families here,” Schaefer said.