Miami-Dade County

In FIU vs. Youth Fair, it may be a fight only a judge can solve

Fair-goers ride the Ferris wheel as the sun sets on the opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair this year. The fair’s neighbor, Florida International University, is pushing a plan to move the annual event so that FIU can expand into the fairgrounds.
Fair-goers ride the Ferris wheel as the sun sets on the opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair this year. The fair’s neighbor, Florida International University, is pushing a plan to move the annual event so that FIU can expand into the fairgrounds. Miami Herald Staff

The fight over Florida International University’s push to expand into the Youth Fair’s home in Tamiami Park may be so intractable that only a court can resolve it.

A recent memo from Mayor Carlos Gimenez hinted at that possibility, which has been mentioned privately by players on all sides of the fight as a potential outcome if FIU and the Youth Fair can’t agree on a new home for the annual event, which is Miami-Dade’s version of a county fair.

In the Dec. 29 memo to county commissioners, Gimenez noted FIU has “refused” to pledge an indemnity agreement to protect the county should the Youth Fair pursue damages under its 90-year lease for the 86-acre Tamiami site.

In an interview, the Gimenez aide trying to broker a resolution between the Fair and FIU, cultural chief Michael Spring, said the indemnity agreement was requested with an eye toward a hypothetical court fight should Miami-Dade find itself forcing the fair to move somewhere it didn’t want to go.

“There has to be some protection for the county if there is a move to relocate the fair and the fair doesn’t want to leave,” said Spring, who oversees the parks department.

FIU’s lawyer said the tax-funded state school finds itself in the same position as any government: unable to pledge future revenues to an indemnification agreement, since elected leaders in Tallahassee have final say on how much money the university receives in any given budget year.

“We’re not in a legal position to indemnify them,” said Richard Perez, a Holland and Knight attorney representing FIU. “It’s not that we’ve said we won’t give it to them. It’s that we’ve said we can’t give it to them.”

The indemnity back-and-forth represents just one small stalemate in what has been a much broader battle between FIU and the nonprofit Fair, with the Gimenez administration wanting to support the popular school as the 2016 mayoral election nears, but hemmed in by the formidable protections the Fair enjoys in its 1995 lease with Miami-Dade.

“The mayor is still absolutely committed to the expansion of FIU,” Spring said. “Nobody has given up on it.”

The fair’s lease expires in 2085, and requires Miami-Dade to both find the fair an equivalent new home and pay relocation costs should the county ever move to evict the yearly event from Tamiami. FIU wants 64 acres of the fairgrounds for an expansion of its adjoining campus, with new dorms, research facilities and other academic functions to accommodate a growing student body.

School leaders successfully championed a 2014 countywide referendum endorsing the move, provided the state school pays all county costs and can find the fair a suitable home. The ballot item passed with 65 percent of the vote.

That hunt for a new home has dragged on for several years, but the battle lines hardened in 2015 as FIU settled on a county-owned site in South Dade. FIU sees the land outside the Homestead Air Reserve Base as a new agricultural center that would combine some school-sponsored research and incubator facilities with the farm-centric fair.

Fair executives have already rejected the site, calling it a “non-starter” that would bankrupt the March event by being too far south for most fair-goers and exhibitors.

Even so, FIU officials are touting the site as the best option for both parties. “Now is the right time to push for this project,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg said during a Dec. 16 presentation to the Homestead City Council, which voted to endorse the plan.

Meanwhile, FIU is pushing back on an idea floated by county staff and backed by the Fair to redesign the current fairgrounds and adjoining areas of Tamiami to accommodate both the fair and FIU’s larger campus.

That plan, first reported in early December by the Miami Herald, is opposed by FIU, according to Spring, and prompted a scorching memo from FIU’s top ally on the County Commission, Juan C. Zapata. “It is difficult to understand why your Administration has allowed the eighth largest public university to take back seat to the selfish interests of a three-week County fair,” Zapata, an FIU graduate whose district includes Tamiami, wrote Gimenez.

He urged the mayor to oppose keeping the fair at Tamiami and told Gimenez that his “lack of strong leadership” on the expansion issue is “no longer acceptable to me as the County Commissioner of the area.”

Gimenez’s Dec. 29 memo was a response to Zapata, and the mayor warned against “asserting simplistic observations or demagoguing about complex issues.” The memo then went on to tick off the reasons why a deal between the FIU and Youth Fair remains so out of reach: FIU’s “strict limitation of $50 million” to cover the costs of moving the fair, the inability so far to find a fair site that would satisfy the lease’s early-exit provisions, and FIU’s refusal to protect Miami-Dade against any legal claims from the fair.

Finding a new fair site “is complex and difficult,” Gimenez wrote, “ and we will not be pressured into a decision that may jeopardize the voters’ mandate that ‘no County funds be used’ for this purpose.”

Bob Hohenstein, the fair’s president, said he thinks both sides can stay out of court as they work toward a compromise. Fair consultants expect to deliver a report by the end of January on two possible sites in western Miami-Dade, and Hohenstein is touting the reconfigured Tamiami option as a potential exit ramp to the current stalemate.

“You have to look at things differently. There has to be some compromise,” he said. “I don’t think this will go to court. I hope it doesn’t go to court.”