Miami-Dade County commissioners threw their political weight Thursday behind Florida International University, unanimously agreeing that the educational institution should expand onto neighboring, county-owned land.
But that property is not vacant. It’s an 86-acre portion of Tamiami Park leased to the Miami-Dade County Fair & Expo, which the county government would have to help move to make room for FIU.
And commissioners don’t know where the youth fair should go.
“We’re just saying, this is public land,” said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who represents the West Miami-Dade area that includes the site. “It has a better use.”
The commission directed Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration, which has been trying to relocate the fair for months to no avail, to recommend a site by Sept. 3. By that date, commissioners also want draft language for a ballot question asking county voters to approve turning over the public fairgrounds at Coral Way and Southwest 107th Avenue to FIU, as required by Miami-Dade rules.
Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the commissioner who made the request, said that ideally the question would go to voters in the Nov. 4 general election. But that time frame sounds tight because the Miami-Dade elections department typically prints those ballots a few days after the primary — which will take place Aug. 26.
Still, Thursday’s decision represents a victory for FIU, which lobbied for — and received — $10 million in state funding this year to help pay for the fair’s relocation.
The fair does not want to find a new home away from where it has been for 43 years.
“We understand how important the fair is,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg told commissioners. “But we also get that, in the end, this is about more and better jobs for our community, and more and better educational opportunities for everyone in this community.”
The lease between the county and the nonprofit group that operates the expo requires Miami-Dade to secure another site and pay for the move — estimated to cost between $60 million and $80 million in construction, plus $150 million in road and service improvements, according to a county consultant’s July 2013 report — if it wants to end the agreement early.
The county has said it cannot afford to do that, which is why Miami-Dade and FIU have been hunting for dollars elsewhere. The university has a $900 million expansion plan for new housing, parking, and research and academic facilities.
The fair’s lease, which runs through 2040 with extensions until 2085, also requires three years’ notice before any move.
“We want to be a good neighbor. We want to be a good tenant,” Bob Hohenstein, the fair’s president and chief executive, told commissioners. “We commit ourselves to continuing moving forward, working with FIU, and working with the county to get this situation resolved.”
A poll conducted for the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald last month showed respondents opposed FIU’s expansion by 50-43 percent. Though the youth fair — which organizers say is thriving — lasts only about three weeks a year, the grounds are rented out to some 70 events annually.
So far, the county, the fair and FIU have studied three potential sites: west of Miami Lakes; near the Homestead Air Reserve Base; and near the Miami Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens. A fourth, at Tropical Park, has also been mentioned.
Hohenstein told commissioners Thursday that only the Miami Lakes property has seemed suitable so far. But because it is privately owned, its price might be too high to make it feasible.
The Sun Life Stadium site has been deemed unsuitable, and the Homestead site is remote and would force the fair to shrink as much as 40 percent in size, Hohenstein told commissioners.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said.
Some commissioners like a fifth site — the Bird Drive Basin, which is owned by the university and lies outside the county's Urban Development Boundary — but Gimenez has opposed westward sprawl. Environmentalists say the wetlands on the site should be allowed to remain untouched.
Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said she and her colleagues want FIU to grow and the fair to be happy, but she conceded that reaching an agreement that doesn’t leave the county on the hook for tens of millions of dollars will be difficult.
“I hope we can accommodate everything, but our job is to protect the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County,” she said.
And one commissioner, Barbara Jordan, acknowledged that Gimenez’s staff could return in September with a recommendation that doesn’t please everyone.
“Anything that comes to us sounds like it would be without their agreement,” she said of the fair.