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A Call for Unity - Miami-Dade- Nov. 2002

Does south Florida have what it takes to become a dynamic, global leader, or will it remain a fragmented collection of municipalities paralyzed by infighting and self-interest?

That's the topic of debate this month as the Urban Land Institute's Southeast Florida/Caribbean District Council hosts its second annual "state of the region" economic forum. It will be the latest in a series of events sponsored by the institute and other groups promoting regionalism -- a vision of south Florida bound by cooperation and common purpose.

"Regionalism is going to happen. It has to," says Michael Y. Cannon, a real estate analyst with Integra Realty Resources/AREEA and chairman of the "state of the region" forum on Nov. 7. "The benefits will be unimaginable; impossible to quantify."

Supporters say south Florida is missing out on billions of dollars in federal aid for education, transportation and other regional issues by failing to coordinate the initiatives of each county and municipality. "We're so fragmented and parochial," says Cannon. "Many of our politicians like to wave their own flag. The idea of cooperation is a threat to them."

For example, economic development officials in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have squabbled for years over the use of incentives to lure companies from each other. A fragile truce in that war was broken earlier this year when some Broward municipalities renewed the practice.

But there have also been successes. In addition to the Urban Land Institute, the Collins Center for Public Policy and the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce have launched programs to encourage leaders to dissolve municipal boundaries and barriers. Most notably, those efforts helped spawn the Internet Coast initiative, which allows the region's technology sector to operate under a seamless designation. And last summer Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties agreed to create a regional transit authority to oversee expansion of the Tri-Rail commuter train and to study other regionwide transportation initiatives. The authority will be funded by a fee on license tags and by state and federal grants.

Supporters also are exploring the possibility of asking the federal government to combine all three counties into a single statistical designation -- creating one of the nation's largest with 5.2 million people -- offering the potential of billions of dollars more in federal funding.

That cooperation will happen, says former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, now chairman of the Urban Land Institute's Southeast Florida/Caribbean District Council, but only after voters recognize the importance of a unified voice.

"Long term I'm confident, but in the short term there will be some tough battles," says Kasdin. "When you talk to some of our local politicians about regional issues, you might as well be talking about foreign policy -- they just don't see what's in it for them politically. But that will change when the public becomes more enlightened. That's what we're working on now."

Aventura -- In one of Miami-Dade's largest investment scandals in recent memory, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other federal agencies are investigating the possible disappearance of nearly $90 million entrusted to American Financial Group. Although the company has suspended operations, investigators are having difficulty locating its assets, including large sums provided by wealthy foreign investors.

Coral Gables -- Delta Air Lines will move its 600-employee call center from Coral Gables to a new 50,000-sq.-ft. facility in Miramar in south Broward County. Miramar and Broward offered Delta about $450,000 in incentives to relocate, angering Miami-Dade officials, who have long complained of corporate poaching by neighboring counties.

Kendall -- The southwest Miami-Dade section of east Kendall will soon have its first luxury residential high-rise. The 25-story Metropolis, being developed by Miami's Terra ADI, is due to open in mid-2004.

Miami -- Nearly two years behind schedule, the city's newest Ritz-Carlton hotel has opened. The 115-room luxury hotel occupies the first eight floors of a new 22-story condominium tower in Coconut Grove.

Parrot Jungle, one of south Florida's most venerable tourist attractions, has changed its name to Parrot Jungle Island in advance of a long-awaited move to downtown Miami's Watson Island. The 66-year-old landmark is moving from its remote Pinecrest location next spring to a new $47-million facility.

Financially troubled Hamilton Bank, seized by regulators last January, is now under investigation for possible fraud violations prior to its takeover, federal officials have announced.

Miami-Dade -- Argentina's Slim & Soft Bread, an industrial baker of breads and pastries, has established a U.S. headquarters in Miami-Dade. The company expects to create 30 jobs over the next three years.

Former Miami-Dade Commissioner Miriam Alonso, removed from office last spring after being indicted on charges of misusing campaign funds, has been arrested again. The latest charges stem from alleged misuse of more than $75,000 in funds raised by Alonso in 1999 to defeat a proposed recall election of the once-powerful commissioner.

Three national environmental groups have sued the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, alleging that Miami-Dade's limestone mining industry is hampering the Everglades restoration effort and is degrading the region's water quality. The suit, filed by the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council and the National Parks Conservation Association, claims the federal government erred in not adequately studying the impact of deep-pit mining before issuing 10-year operating permits last spring.

In Miami-Dade's second high-profile probate dispute in less than a year, a Miami judge has barred the widow of aviation magnate George Batchelor from overseeing a charitable foundation due to receive much of Batchelor's $350-million estate. Batchelor died last July at age 81 only weeks after marrying 41-year-old Amanda Rodgers, prompting family members to challenge the amended will on grounds that he was mentally unfit. A similar dispute erupted following the death of businessman Victor Posner last February.

Miami International Airport

MIAMI-DADE -- A closely watched spat between Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver and Aviation Director Angela Gittens is threatening a plan to overhaul the system for awarding retail contracts at Miami International Airport.

The airport's shops and restaurants are widely regarded as drab and outdated. Gittens has routinely complained that lobbyists for the current leaseholders have worked to stall her plans to replace the T-shirt shops and trinket stands with nationally known retailers.

Shiver has accused Gittens of moving too quickly and has asked that a panel of outside consultants review her plans before sending out contracts for bids.