Miami is at an inflection point. It is an aspiring global city, one that needs to build up its own economy — adding higher paying jobs and addressing yawning income inequality, continuing to build its innovation and startup cluster, and weaning itself off of imported capital and tourist dollars. Real strides are being made. But three recent economic development decisions threaten to push the city and the region back to the past.
Exhibit A: The American Dream Mega Mall: Earlier this year, the Miami-Dade Commission voted move ahead with this $4 billion-dollar mega-mall complex with more than six million square feet of retail, entertainment and backroom space, plus 2,000 hotel rooms. Building the country’s largest mega-mall at a time of retail Armageddon when traditional physical retailers are buckling and malls are literally dying under the weight of competition from on-line providers is counterintuitive at best and irresponsible at worst.
The project will do little to generate the good jobs we need. Malls create low paying jobs in retail and food service. With our tourism and hospitality economy, Greater Miami already has a greater percentage of low-paying, low skill service jobs than any large metro in the nation, save for Las Vegas.
The good news is we are providing no taxpayer subsidy. The bad news is there will nonetheless be real costs for our region. The space could better be used for much-needed housing or better yet parks to protect the fragile Everglades the site abuts. And Miami will ultimately pay in time and dollars for the additional public services, infrastructure, and even more clogged roads that come with an estimated 70,000 new car trips per day.
Exhibit B: The New Soccer Stadium: Next is the proposed stadium complex deal for David Beckham to bring Major League Soccer to Miami. The proposed location for Miami Freedom Park is the site of the Melreese Golf Course, just east of Miami International Airport. While it still needs to clear several legal and political hurdles including at least one lawsuit about the legality of the secretive process, the stadium is gaining political support and appears to be an inevitability. In general, stadiums like this do little for the local economy and should not be used to divert funds from projects that do help generate local development and jobs. This complex, while perhaps providing entertainment to some residents, is hardly the well-conceived economic development strategy many supporters purport.
Exhibit C: Amazon HQ2: Our third economic development misdirection is the massive, and massively secret, incentive deal for Amazon HQ2. Greater Miami should be proud of having been selected as one of twenty finalists. And the bidding process did result in a stunning and useful display of regional collaboration between Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. But it is a telling statement on the corporatist nature of our times that it took bidding for a hugely profitable corporation to bring the region together. As with all such decisions, Amazon likely knows where it is going already and is gaming the process to extract maximum public incentives. And if Amazon actually does choose Miami it will put additional pressure on the city and region’s already unaffordable housing, its clogged and congested roads, and more. Instead of taking from the public till they should be contributing to the costs they incur. Paying hundreds of millions to what is likely to be the world’s first trillion-dollar company run by the world’s richest person and with a track-record of gaming government for taxpayer money is not sound 21st century economic development.
Let’s put an end to unproductive, old-school economic development. The path to economic success does not lie in silver bullet mega-projects like malls, stadiums and big corporate relocations. It comes from building up local economies from the bottom-up by investing in talent, establishing a local innovation and startup ecosystem; and creating a great open-minded community where people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and nationalities want to be. That means investing in our own assets — like our airport and port; universities, colleges and schools; parks, open-space and quality of place; mitigating the effects of flooding and climate change; and most of all our people — that are the real drivers of long-run economic growth.
And it means addressing our mounting inequality, creating better paying port of entry jobs, providing affordable housing and investing in transit that will help build a more inclusive, region for all.
It’s time to dump the silver bullets and white elephants and focus on investing on our own homegrown assets that are the key to sustainable economic development and shared prosperity for all.
Richard Florida is founder of the FIU Miami Future Initiative and Distinguished Fellow at FIU, as well as University Professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management and Distinguished Fellow at NYU.
Chris Caines is Executive Director of the FIU Miami Urban Future Initiative, a 2017 Harvard Business School Young American Leader, and a 2018 McClatchy Media Company Florida Influencer.