Miami-Dade County

Youth Fair refuses to split up its fairgrounds

Ticket holders ride the Ferris wheel as the sun sets on the opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair on Thursday, March 12, 2015.
Ticket holders ride the Ferris wheel as the sun sets on the opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair on Thursday, March 12, 2015. Miami Herald Staff

Miami-Dade’s Youth Fair has rejected a low-cost relocation scenario that Florida International University hoped would clear the way for the school to expand onto the county-owned fairgrounds at Tamiami Park.

In a letter to County Hall, the fair dismissed as “unacceptable” a proposal that it move to fairgrounds equipped with only temporary buildings and structures that could be removed once the four-week event ends every spring. That scenario called for the fair to continue using a collection of buildings at the Tamiami site for a year-round schedule of smaller collectible shows, consumer expos and banquets that account for about 9 cents of every dollar the fair’s parent organization earned last year.

“Please note that there are operational, financial and legal reasons as to why the concept of retaining the buildings at Tamiami Park and holding the annual Fair at a separate location is unacceptable,” fair president Robert Hohenstein wrote to the mayor’s office in an April 2 letter released this week.

Addressed to Michael Spring, a senior aide to county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the two-page letter ratified a position fair executives had already telegraphed in their long-running feud with FIU over the 87-acre fairgrounds.

The fair doesn’t want to move, and has about 70 years left in its Tamiami lease. The agreement requires Miami-Dade to provide replacement fairgrounds if it ever evicts the event. FIU wants the land for new dormitories and academic facilities, and last fall won voter approval to take over the fairgrounds provided it pays to provide the fair a new home.

That relocation tab is a top hurdle for FIU, and the state-funded school sees splitting up the current fairgrounds’ footprint as a way to find a new home for the yearly event without having to create permanent structures, too. A 2013 consultant study estimated reproducing the fairgrounds’ existing buildings would cost about $70 million.

Last month, Spring sent the fair and FIU a list of four possible relocation sites.

One would move the fair to temporary quarters outside Sun Life Stadium, with year-round events still held in the Tamiami buildings. In his letter, Hohenstein rejected that option and another possible site in Homestead, both of which the fair had already shot down in previous negotiations. That left two other sites — one in western Miami-Dade, the other near the Dolphin Mall. Hohenstein wrote Spring that the fair “is open to studying the possibilities that may exist” on the proposed locations.

Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, senior vice president of external relations for FIU, said, “we’re really sorry to hear that the fair has rejected two of the four sites.” University officials have not yet responded to Spring’s recommendation on the four options. “We’ll continue to move forward with our intent to expand onto the fairgrounds, as was mandated by the voters,” she said.

In crafting the ballot language that passed with 65 percent of the vote last November, FIU only asked to take over 64 acres of the 87-acre fairground site. The idea was to exclude the existing buildings, which a county memo said would be taken over by the parks department. But FIU has been pushing the idea of the fairgrounds keeping the buildings, and Spring endorsed that scenario as holding “positive potential” in a March 23 email to Hohenstein.

Hohenstein said he doubted that the fair, which took in about $13 million last year, could afford the kind of high-end tents and pavilions rented by arts festivals and others that set up temporary quarters in Miami for yearly events. “We’re not going to look at any option that…forces us to double or triple our operating expenses,” he said.

In a private meeting last July, FIU President Mark Rosenberg suggested the fair move to temporary structures at Miami-Dade’s Tropical Park each year, but keep its headquarters and year-round operations at Tamiami, Hohenstein said in Tuesday’s interview. Gonzalez-Levy said she couldn’t comment on Hohenstein’s version of the meeting, but noted Tropical Park “was one more possibility that we looked at.”

Facing an uproar from neighbors and others, Gimenez in February issued a statement declaring Tropical Park “unsuitable” as a fair relocation site.