Florida International University on Tuesday unveiled a $150 million engineering center that it wants to build on 64 acres of county parkland leased by the Youth Fair next door and called on Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to endorse moving the annual event to South Dade.
“Sometimes hard decisions have to be made,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg told reporters after outlining plans for a new academic building where a “circus tent” now stands in Tamiami Park. “The mayor has the power of leadership … The mayor understands, if he’s really committed to jobs, what’s at risk here.”
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Rosenberg’s election-year comments reflect the latest effort by FIU to prod the county into evicting Miami-Dade’s version of a county fair. The nonprofit fair’s 1995 lease at Miami-Dade’s Tamiami Park, which doesn’t expire until 2085, requires the county to build the fair a replacement site in the event of an eviction. As part of a 2014 referendum endorsing FIU’s move into Tamiami, the tax-funded school agreed to cover Miami-Dade’s expenses for relocating the Youth Fair.
Fair leaders say FIU’s proposed new fairgrounds outside of Homestead is so remote it would bankrupt the annual event and expose the county to legal liability for violating the 1995 lease. The fair, which runs a year-round expo center on the Tamiami site, claims FIU is low-balling how much a new fair site would cost while trying to prod elected leaders into a protracted legal battle.
The courts can provide an opportunity to resolve the question
FIU President Mark Rosenberg
“FIU appears to believe that repeated references to a site in the Homestead area will somehow render this agreement provision meaningless,” Fair lawyer Roberto Diaz wrote a county attorney Tuesday, referring to the lease’s requirement for a comparable replacement site. “We ask that Miami-Dade County reject FIU’s efforts to undermine the terms of our lease agreement including its specific relocation requirements.”
Gimenez has already pointed to a court fight with the Youth Fair as a likely outcome, saying he wants FIU to promise to cover the county’s legal costs should Miami-Dade force the event to relocate. In a statement Tuesday, Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said the mayor “strongly supports FIU’s expansion” but that “the county requires FIU to indemnify it and agree to be responsible for all costs” tied to a new fair site.
As a state agency, FIU says it can’t provide the kind of blanket legal protection Miami-Dade wants and pledged only to spend $50 million on a new fair site that the event’s organizers say could cost more than $200 million. That has extended a standoff that Rosenberg said Tuesday needs to be resolved by county leaders forcing action. He called on Gimenez to declare county-owned land outside Homestead the chosen new home for the Youth Fair and suggested that litigation offers a possible solution.
“The courts can provide an opportunity to resolve the question,” he said. “But the voters have spoken. And it’s not like the voters haven’t sent a very clear mandate to the political leadership of this community.”
Tuesday’s event in a glass-walled campus building overlooking the fairgrounds was designed to highlight what could be done with the land once FIU took over. The 225,000-square foot engineering building would be just one structure to go up on the 64 acres. It would provide more space for the school’s existing programs for engineering, computer science and other technical fields.
Rosenberg began the event by chastising Fair president Robert Hohenstein for his recent criticism of FIU for only graduating 20 percent of its students within four years and seeing almost half of its students not graduate after six years. Rosenberg said a heavy concentration of working students tends to extend graduation times. Hohenstein’s “disrespect strikes at the heart of our community,” he said.
In an interview, Hohenstein said graduation rates are relevant to the Tamiami debate given FIU’s insistence that the public will benefit from expanding a school that currently enrolls about 55,000 students.
“This university is proposing to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on various projects,” Hohenstein said. “Maybe it needs to take that look in the mirror, if you will, and say what is our mission here? And how well are we doing it?”