Elected officials often travel for conferences, meetings and exposure to new ideas they can bring back to their cities. In North Miami’s case, the city’s plan to establish a Chinatown area is taking a delegation all the way to the People’s Republic of China.
A group of North Miami staff, elected officials and leadership from Florida International University will travel to several cities in China to participate in the graduation ceremony for the hospitality school’s campus in Tianjin and to Beijing and Shanghai where city representatives will meet with potential investors.
The group leaves Thursday for a trip that will last nearly two weeks. The price tag will be about $25,000 for travel and other expenses, and has already been questioned by some residents.
“There’s so many needs in the city of North Miami that are basic and right here in our community and it’s difficult to see them spending so much money on something like this,” Laura Hill said.
North Miami’s interest in China started in earnest in February when the City Council approved plans to create a Chinatown cultural arts and innovation district on Northwest Seventh Avenue stretching from 119th to 135th Streets. The city believes the district will bring development to a main road in the city that has been mostly stagnant for decades.
Vice Mayor Alix Desulme, who represents the city’s west side and spearheaded the Chinatown idea, said the city was considering a trip later this year but officials changed their plans so they could partner with FIU.
“They invited us to be part of their graduation, but we’ve been in talks with people in Tianjin since we passed the Chinatown item,” Desulme said.
Hill and some other residents said they hope the trip is successful and that new businesses will come to the city, but they can’t understand how the city is prioritizing its spending.
Councilwoman Carol Keys said she expects the trip to be 90 percent business, primarily meetings, travel between cities and participation in the FIU events. She said that when comparing the cost of the trip to what the city has paid to firms for studies and other services, she doesn’t see an issue.
“It’s an investment for this development we’re looking at with Chinatown,” Keys said.
Desulme said that he recognizes that some residents might be skeptical of the trip given issues raised when city officials traveled to Haiti several years ago. In May 2015 the city had to pay about $33,000 in fines to the Internal Revenue Service due in part to travel expenses for a trip to Haiti in 2012. The city was unable to produce receipts for some expenses and could not clarify the public benefit of the trip.
“This is not Haiti, this is about business development,” Desulme said. “Throughout the country different cities take trips abroad.”
The Chinatown concept has also raised eyebrows given the small number of Asian-Americans in South Florida and particularly in North Miami. According to 2014 U.S. Census estimates, Asians make up about 1.6 percent of Miami-Dade’s population and about 2.2 percent of North Miami’s population. In the city, 139 people identify themselves as having Chinese ancestry.
Desulme and Keys will represent the City Council. Planning and zoning director Tanya Wilson-Sejour, redevelopment consultant Rasha Cameau and deputy city manager Arthur Sorey will represent staff. City Clerk Michael Etienne will also travel with the group.
They will travel with Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg, dean of the hospitality school Mike Hampton and other members of their staff. FIU’s partnership with the Tianjin University of Commerce began in 2006 and the enrollment includes more than 1,000 students.
City manager Larry Spring said staff members have been working with FIU’s advance team in China and will also be involved in the eventual development of the Chinatown district.
Meanwhile, business in the city will continue and the remaining council members will be present for the May 10 City Council meeting.
“We know this is how we want to transform North Miami,” Desulme said. “If not this, then what?”