Where a reveler at the Miami-Dade County Fair & Expo sees funnel cakes and midway rides, Florida International University envisions student dorms and research labs.
The annual fair, which opened Thursday with its usual array of agriculture, livestock and old-fashioned fun, sits on an expansive public park next to FIU, which has long had its sights set on growth.
For years, the public university has eyed the 86 acres the fair occupies at Tamiami Park. The land is owned by Miami-Dade County but leased to the nonprofit that runs the fair — through 2040 with extensions all the way out to 2085.
The adjacent land represents the most obvious expansion opportunity for a university that is fast running out of buildable space on its main southwest Miami-Dade campus.
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Now FIU has the attention of county leaders and Miami-Dade’s Tallahassee lawmakers, who have taken on as a critical priority helping the university secure funding to strike a deal that would allow it to expand onto the fairgrounds at Coral Way and Southwest 107th Avenue.
“FIU is now one of the main economic engines of this community,” said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, whose district includes the university’s main campus. “Everything they do in expanding and growing those opportunities and having a greater economic impact is something that we should all support.”
If it happens, the fair would not relocate for years. There is still no agreement on where the fair would go or how to fund the move. And if a new location is chosen, county voters would have to approve FIU taking the 86 acres through a public referendum.
“We’re basically now waiting for the youth fair to come to grips with the fact that there are opportunities for it to move,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg said during a recent meeting with the Miami Herald’s editorial board.
While FIU is eager for a deal to happen, fair organizers are decidedly not in a rush. They are willing to consider a move — but only if the new location is right.
“We do not wish to move,” said fair President and CEO Bob Hohenstein. “We are perfectly happy, very content, and have been successful at this location. Been here for 43 years.”
In the absence of a deal, FIU leaders have worked to build public support by arguing that an expanded university campus is a better use for public land than a fair that runs only “17 or 18 days a year.”
FIU leaders also suggested that moving might actually be good for the long-running fair, as it would provide an opportunity for the fair to “reinvent” itself.
“Fairs are kind of dying out,” said FIU Vice President of External Relations Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, referring to national trends — not to the neighboring annual exposition.
Such talk clearly rankles Hohenstein, who said the fair is thriving — growing attendance by nearly 20 percent last year. Hohenstein called the fair a “Miami-Dade County icon” that is attended by more than 1 in 5 county residents each year.
Another 300,000 show up for some 70 events (concerts, trades shows, and festivals) that the fairgrounds host throughout the year, Hohenstein said.
“FIU has continually said ‘Well, they need to reinvent themselves,’ ” Hohenstein said. “With all due respect, the youth fair will run the youth fair.”
In the ongoing negotiations, the fair’s bargaining position is strengthened by a favorable long-term lease.
It requires Miami-Dade to pay to relocate the fair to an equal or better site if it wants to end the agreement early. The move could cost between $60 million and $80 million in construction costs, plus $150 million in road and other improvements, according to a July 2013 report conducted by Markin Consulting for the county, university and fair.
FIU’s Rosenberg said the university would possibly be willing to contribute $30 million to $40 million to the effort. The cash-strapped county hasn’t indicated it would be willing to throw money into the pot.
Miami-Dade and FIU have asked state lawmakers, who are in session until early May, to help fund the relocation in order for the state’s second-largest university to expand. FIU has a $900 million growth plan that proposes building housing for more than 2,000 students and the addition of more than 1,800 faculty members; new research and academic space; and parking, the Markin report says.
Zapata, the county commissioner, says state lawmakers won’t give FIU funds to grow unless county leaders show a united front in support of the university’s expansion plans. “It’s important that we try to get this solved this year,” he said.
Last year’s fair drew more than half a million people. The nonprofit brings in about $9 million a year in revenue, according to its 2011 tax return, the most recent one publicly available. Over the years, Hohenstein said, the fair has contributed more than $10 million toward local student scholarships, with millions more donated to FIU’s performing arts center and football stadium.
Since 2010, a joint task force comprising FIU, Miami-Dade and fair executives has been searching for potential new fairgrounds. In October, the group agreed to focus on three possible sites, down from 24 initially considered.
The three sites are: 335 undeveloped acres privately owned by the Graham family west of Miami Lakes; 344 acres owned by the county parks department near the Homestead Air Reserve Base; and 85 acres owned by the Miami Dolphins around Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens.
None of the locations is perfect, but the Sun Life site seems particularly unlikely to be chosen, given its much smaller size — which would be made even smaller by plans to build a water park on 30 acres of the proposed properties. Fair organizers say the Homestead site is not viable because its remote location would lead to a big loss in business.
The fair is receptive to the Miami Lakes-area land, but the anticipated high cost of buying that land could be a deal-breaker.
In recent weeks, Tropical Park has come up in conversations as a potential site, but fair organizers say they’ve yet to receive any details about that proposal.
There’s also continued discussion about another location: the Bird Drive Basin, a parcel outside the county’s Urban Development Boundary owned by the university, which would be willing to swap the land with the county.
The property, at Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail, used to belong to the South Florida Water Management District, which had purchased the wetlands as part of an Everglades restoration project ultimately deemed too expensive and ineffective.
Environmental activists would like to leave the site undeveloped, to allow the wetlands to recharge the groundwater supply and help control flooding. County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is against using the site, citing opposition to westward sprawl.
But some commissioners counter that a county fair outside the UDB is not the same as warehouses, industry or offices.
“We’re not talking about a developer here basically adding congestion,” Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said at an October meeting. “The impact of what we’re talking about with FIU is so substantial.”
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.