Miami-Dade County

Youth Fair ends with FIU feud in full swing over school’s expansion plans

Fair-goers ride the ferris wheel as the sun sets on the opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair in 2015.
Fair-goers ride the ferris wheel as the sun sets on the opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair in 2015. Miami Herald Staff

The Miami-Dade Youth Fair ended Sunday much the way it began: in the middle of a nasty, public and high-stakes fight with its neighbor, Florida International University.

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FIU wants to expand onto the county parkland that houses Miami-Dade’s version of a county fair, and is applying pressure on elected leaders to force the annual event to move. Youth Fair executives blame FIU for causing logistical problems by denying access to campus roads and garages fairgoers have used for years. On Saturday, FIU students staged a modest rally in support of the expansion plans and this week school leaders are poised to unveil the most detailed plans yet for what they want to build on the fairgrounds.

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“We have always been good neighbors but the fair has outgrown the space and FIU can no longer help make up for it,” Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, FIU’s senior vice president for external relations, said in a statement Sunday. “It’s time to relocate the Fair to a more suitable venue.”

At the heart of the fight is 64 acres of Miami-Dade’s Tamiami Park, which the Youth Fair leases year-round. The nonprofit runs the four-week fair that draws about 600,000 attendees each year, and also also makes money running an expo center that houses trade shows, conventions and weddings during the rest of the year. Mayor Carlos Gimenez and other county leaders have endorsed FIU’s proposal to expand its campus onto the fairgrounds and find the fair another home, and voters approved the idea in a 2014 referendum organized by the state school.

But the fair’s 1995 lease with Miami-Dade doesn’t expire until 2085 and requires the county to fund relocation costs if it opts to evict the event sooner. FIU has pledged to shield taxpayers from that liability by promising to cover all county costs for moving the fair to a new location, and the ballot language approved by voters stated “no county funds” be used for the relocation.

The lease protections have so far been considered so iron-clad that Gimenez recently described the situation as a card game that he’d like to win on FIU’s behalf — but that he’s bound to lose. “The Youth Fair has an ace of spades, a king of spades, a queen of spades, a jack of spades, and a 10 of spades,” Gimenez said in February. “I have a two, a three, a four, a five and a seven.”

Each side has a potential solution that the other calls a non-starter. FIU wants the Youth Fair to move to county-owned land outside Homestead and be part of a new agricultural-focused economic center the school would help create there. The Youth Fair claims a move that far south from its current home in the western suburbs would bankrupt the event. Instead, it has proposed reworking Tamiami to accommodate both the fair and FIU’s expanded campus. FIU has signaled to county officials it doesn’t support the plan to share the fairgrounds.

FIU plans a new volley this week when it reveals plans Tuesday morning for an educational facility it would build on the fairgrounds once it gets permission to move there. “The facility will help educate more engineers, do more research, start companies and ultimately create jobs,” FIU said in a statement Sunday.

With all parties bracing for a court fight, the launch of the 2016 fair was bound to ratchet up tensions. A few weeks before the fair’s March 17 start, FIU issued a press release touting student Alexis Calatayud’s petition on change.org urging county leaders to “take action” on the fair site.

A few days later, Fair President Robert Hohenstein sent a three-page letter to Calatayud, a senior and president of FIU’s Student Government Association, and urged her to use her campus post to “demand the university stop its divisive, untruthful and deceitful practices.” The letter also took aim at FIU’s success as a university, with Hohenstein urging Calatayud to pressure the school to support “the 80 percent of your classmates who don’t graduate after four years … and the nearly 50 percent of the students who will spend six years at FIU and still not graduate.”

On Sunday, FIU’s Gonzalez-Levy responded in a statement: “FIU graduates more than 12,000 students a year. Some FIU students take longer than the traditional four years to graduate because they are working and studying part-time. Mr. Hohenstein is welcome to attend one of our commencement ceremonies in May so that he can see for himself.”

Calatayud, an FIU trustee who has accompanied university administrators in their pitches on the expansion plans to elected officials in Homestead and Doral, organized a demonstration outside the fair Saturday. “We just don’t have the capacity that our students deserve,” she said. “It’s difficult to find a place to be, to sit, to relax between classes. There is almost no places for our student organizations to meet.”

The public-relations war between FIU and the Youth Fair spilled into a logistical fracas in recent weeks when fair officials protested FIU temporarily closing the stretch of Southwest 17th Street that runs through campus. Fair-goers also use the street to access the park, and FIU’s closing of the street for two Saturdays prompted a flurry of letters from fair lawyers to both the school and the county. FIU said the closures were needed to manage traffic for events on campus, including this weekend’s debut of the Miami FC soccer squad.

The road closures, along with what the fair said was padlocking gates connecting Tamiami with FIU, followed the university’s decision to end past practices of renting garage space and parking lots to the fair each year.

In her statement, Gonzalez-Levy suggested elected leaders need to take a harder stance against the fair’s refusal to accept the Homestead plan.

The “ideal location has been found in South Dade,” she wrote, “and our community needs to muster the political will to start the process of relocating the Fair, in accordance with the voter mandate of Nov. 2014. FIU and this community urgently need the university to expand and the ideal site in South Dade may not be available indefinitely.”

In an interview, Hohenstein urged compromise rather than banking on a judge ruling for one side over the other. “This situation needs to find a solution. A solution where, maybe, there’s a little bit of discomfort for both sides,” he said. “And neither party relies on the judicial system for a resolution.”

The fair opened Thursday and runs through April 10 — except for March 28-29 and April 4-5

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