When North Miami sent a six-person delegation to China in May, city officials estimated that the trip would cost about $25,000 but records indicate that the cost was actually closer to double that amount.
Receipts and expense reports show that the delegation spent about $47,500 on transportation, lodging and food for the trip, which lasted almost two weeks.
The trip included participation in the graduation ceremony for Florida International University’s hospitality school campus in Tianjin, China, but was primarily focused on meeting with urban planners and other government officials in Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai as North Miami plans to develop a Chinatown cultural arts district on Northwest Seventh Avenue.
The area, which will run along Seventh Avenue from Northwest 119th to 135th streets, was approved in February. Vice Mayor Alix Desulme, who has spearheaded the Chinatown idea, and other city officials believe that the new designation will encourage development along Seventh Avenue by incorporating Chinese design and facade elements.
City Manager Larry Spring said the increased cost of the trip is due in part to logistics and preparation in China and some visa issues for the group.
“We covered some of the costs for the advance people and that sort of threw us off,” Spring said.
The costs were divided between the city’s general fund and the city’s community redevelopment agency. Spring said that the trip’s costs, compared to the city’s $60 million operating budget, were needed to take advantage of Chinese interest in South Florida.
“We have to have a return on investment on all these things,” Spring said. “We’re trying to take advantage of their investment window for the benefit of our residents.”
Residents like Judy Brown, president of a homeowners association in the area where Chinatown will be developed, said they want to see economic development but wonder when they’ll see that return on the city’s investment.
“It’s like we have deep pockets for whatever they deem to be necessary, but we have real issues here. We have streets that need resurfacing, sidewalks that need repair,” Brown said.
During the visit, staff and council members met with the Beijing Chamber of Commerce, toured the Moganshan art district in Shanghai, and gave presentations on the city’s attractions at the University of Shanghai and to other potential investors.
“These trips aren’t about going and sightseeing. They were working every day,” Spring said.
The city covered the costs for some members of FIU’s advance team including the lodging for Fang Shu, FIU’s China programs manager for the hospitality school, who served as an organizer for the trip and led much of the city’s itinerary during the trip. The city paid a little more than $7,500 for Fang’s lodging, flights and passport fees for the advance team.
North Miami’s delegation included Desulme and Councilwoman Carol Keys. Planning and zoning director Tanya Wilson-Sejour, redevelopment consultant Rasha Cameau, City Clerk Michael Etienne and deputy city manager Arthur Sorey were city staff who took the trip.
The delegation also traveled with FIU 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.
As the plan develops, staff said residents will be invited to give input on the Chinatown district at workshops, and the city plans to appoint a steering committee to assist in the district’s development. A draft version of the district’s master plan is to be ready in November, with a vote by December.