Facts behind Youth Fair-FIU dispute

IN DISPUTE: Opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair, on March 12, 2015.
IN DISPUTE: Opening day of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair, on March 12, 2015. Miami Herald Staff

For the past 40 years I’ve enjoyed positive and supportive relationships with the presidents, past and present, of Florida International University (FIU) and the Youth Fair. While FIU is much larger, they are two tremendous community assets. It was therefore difficult to watch what should have been a negotiated understanding, with all the facts on the table, turn into a political battle with lobbyists, expensive newspaper advertisements, confusing public rhetoric and questionable referendum claims. A neutral, more factual public understanding with full disclosure is long overdue.

No one can, or should, dispute that the proposed expansion of FIU offers tremendous benefits for our community’s economy by providing expanded educational opportunities for tens of thousands of additional students. It is also logical for FIU to want to expand its campus onto the fair’s adjacent leased lands.

Relocating the Youth Fair, however, is no simple matter. Since the 1970s, the 501(c)3 nonprofit Youth Fair has built a multimillion-dollar infrastructure of buildings and other improvements on its leased county land to better serve the hundreds of thousands of annual fairgoers, along with scores of other public events held on the fairgrounds. It is the largest attended fair in the southeastern United States, with more than 653,000 visitors in 2015.

If the fair must relocate, then, as clearly stated in the fair’s land lease — and approved by the Miami-Dade Commission for a period from 1993 through 2085 — it must be after three years’ notice to “an equal or better site in Dade,” “along with adequate parking,” “adequate highway access,” and the county must “pay all moving costs...together with the replacement costs...of all improvements within the existing fairgrounds.”

In 2012, replacement costs of fairground improvements were appraised at $54.5 million. Further complicating this issue is that in October 2014 the commission approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with FIU that repeatedly states that no county funds would be used in support of FIU’s expansion.

That might well mean that if FIU expands onto the fair’s leased lands, then Florida would have to fund not only FIU’s expansion but pay for the costs of relocating the fair. The cost of a new fairground site acceptable to the fair operators, plus the fair’s relocation costs and the replacement costs of the fair’s existing facilities, could well cost $100 million or considerably more.

Historically, the fair and FIU have been good neighbors.

For example, at the request of FIU, the fair donated millions of dollars to build FIU’s football stadium and performing arts center. In turn, FIU has helped the fair with its overflow parking needs. It is a shame that the relationship has turned acrimonious. While the importance of expanding FIU’s educational opportunities cannot be overstated, the Youth Fair’s future is also important. We need to move this discussion to a higher plane.

We need to deal with real numbers and real costs. What are the actual costs of relocating the fair and who will pay for them? What are the opportunity costs, or the costs of alternative decisions to achieve FIU’s educational goals? What about FIU satellite facilities?

When these facts are publicly and honestly put on the table, without spin, we might, hopefully, turn what has developed into a nasty struggle between two respected community assets into a win/win for our community.

Merrett R. Stierheim is a former Miami-Dade County manager, former Miami city manager and Miami-Dade school superintendent.