Rep. Mucarsel-Powell invited local South Dade leaders to discuss how she can help facilitate economic development in the region.
On Friday, March 15, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) FL-26, hosted a roundtable discussion on economic development in South Dade with local business leaders and government officials. Mucarsel-Powell stated she’d like to learn about promoting South Florida’s economy and how her office can be of assistance.
Joining the Congresswoman at the roundtable, held in the Redland at Schnebly Winery were: Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace; Homestead Mayor and COO of Farm Share Steve Shelley; Dr. George Marakas, chairman of the South Dade Chamber of Commerce and owner of K&G Cycles in Florida City; Tom Rieder, owner of Rieder Realty and Vice President of the Dade County Farm Bureau; Peter Schnebly, owner of Schnebly Redlands Winery; Diana Gonzalez, an economic development consultant who works with Comm. Levine-Cava and “More to Explore”; Major Sabra Brown from the Homestead Air Reserve Base (HARB); Heather Moehling, vice president of Robert Is Here; Ana San Roman, economic development manager with the City of Homestead; Jaap Donath, senior vice-president with the Beacon Council; and Brodes Hartley Jr., president and CEO of Community Health of South Florida.
Mucarsel Powell launched the discussion noting the large amount of opportunity in South Dade, along with areas needing improvement. She mentioned putting a focus on healthcare, not only through medical coverage but improving health with better access to fresh foods, addressing the lack of jobs and dealing with gun violence.
“How can I be helpful on a federal level? We need to get started,” stated the congresswoman.
Each participant introduced themselves and offered what they feel is the primary hinderance to better economic growth.
“We do need direction on development and how to keep farming as a viable industry. And if not, what is the Plan B.” said Tom Rieder.
Diana Gonzalez noted that the ‘More to Explore’ committee has been working for three years to acquire funding of $412,000 in federal and local grants to create an economic development strategic plan. The challenge she stated will be getting the funding to implement the plan.
Major Brown told the table that HARB brings $331 million annually to the local community through jobs, contracts and military construction. She mentioned that since giving much of their land back to the county after the base was destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, as the base recovered and adapted, their concern is to encroachment and ensuring the air space remains safe.
Mayor Wallace said the concern is as residential projects are booming, we must keep up and bring the jobs to South Dade, as the residential boom is coming faster than the improvements to transportation.
As the conversation got rolling, Mucarsel-Powell wanted to know how we can attract businesses to South Dade, especially as the community is far in distance through heavy traffic to Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami.
Mayor Shelley spoke to the many positives of changing HARB to a joint use air base. “All that land is ripe for use. To use it for cargo, at a minimum, would open all that land to higher paying jobs, manufacturing jobs. We have a free trade zone that nobody wants to take advantage of. It makes no sense to pay the fee to go to the Port of Miami, drive to Homestead, drive back to the port, and drive back to Miami.”
Those at the table acknowledged that the barrier to that is the Air Force. It was agreed that to begin, the cities of Homestead and Florida City should meet with Col. David Piffarerio, commander of the 482nd Fight Wing at HARB, and together send a detailed letter of support to Mucarsel-Powell for her to reference as she approaches Air Force officials with her recommendation and support.
Gonzalez brought up the fact that right now the major problem with South Dade is that 128,000 daily commuters must travel north for work.
She feels the key is to maximize the opportunities for industries that are already in South Dade; agriculture, military, tourism and retail. She said Atlantic Sapphire is a great example, “An opportunity to mashup innovation, technology and farming.” She cited opportunities with the Air Base, “Bringing more defense-oriented industry to the vacant property that Miami-Dade County can put out to bid.”
George Marakas spoke passionately that he feels the most critical issue is transportation. He noted that building one lane is not going to fix anything.
Mucarsel-Powell asked the table their opinion on the rapid transit bus system being considered.
“It’s better than nothing,” said Marakas, “I would take a team of rickshaws over what we have received which is nothing at all. I would love to see a high-speed train taking me right downtown. That would change the demographic of this community enormously.”
Mucarsel-Powell acknowledged that for now that fastest way to get a transportation fix is through the high-speed buses. But noted that further planning must continue while the buses are implemented.
Peter Schnebly moved the subject to tourism, noting that we are close to Miami and the Keys, and “it’s almost a secret that we are the only county in the state with two national parks.”
Schnebly describes himself as a radical thinker. He feels that a key to economic growth and high paying jobs is by building a convention center in South Dade. “We have the land, we are the gateway to the national parks,” he said, “But when you drive through the area you don’t know you are near the Everglades or Biscayne.” He feels that with growth it needs to look like the gateway to the parks. He also supports the use of water taxis for transportation and tourism.
Mayor Wallace broke in and said that the problem is not bringing people here, they are already here, they just don’t do much while here. Wallace said that a recent traffic count at the intersection of US1 and Palm Drive, 11 million people exit from the turnpike per year.
Schnebly said, “Well, I’ve tried to build a resort on 30 acres of our property, but it has been turned down by Miami-Dade because they said the land is agricultural.” Mucarsel-Powell asked Rieder how the Farm Bureau feels about that. “We’re fine with that.” Rieder said.
Major Brown agreed saying their soldiers do not participate in the local community. She said they may go to McDonalds but that’s about it because there is nothing for them to do. She also said that she agrees with the lack of opportunities, noting that for large social functions there is nothing suitable space-wise, or with enough hotel rooms, in South Dade. She holds most of her events in Miami or Key Largo.
Mayor Shelley interjected that they have been working to solve one of those problems, and that Homestead expects the Krome Ave. entertainment and restaurant venues to open before the end of 2019.
Mucarsel-Powell noted that she was recently at a conference at Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key. She thought it wonderful that it is close enough for Miami people to relax and disconnect, and that so many destination places can build from that. Schnebly mentioned that the Biltmore Resort is the same way, noting that the successful resort and conference center was once a dairy farm.
But the table discussion went back to the resistance received from the county.
“When I first started to try and have a winery here, the head of Zoning at Miami-Dade said you will never have a winery out in the countryside …... I said well why not?
She said that belongs in an industrial park. And I said I have never heard of the Napa Valley Industrial Park,” said Schnebly, “These are the things they don’t get.”
Rieder, a pilot himself, brought the discussion back to the Joint Use Base. “I think the idea is so important, and it’s not unusual. You have it in Orlando, Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston.” He also supports the idea of commercial air traffic at the base.
Gonzalez said the challenge for general aviation is getting an agreement between the Air Force and the county. She said that Miami-Dade was given the property for all economic development except general aviation.
Marakas summarized that the community is frustrated with trying to do this on their own. “Our own county has taken forever to get us a transportation solution. Ag is struggling to survive. Healthcare is prevalent throughout the county, just not here. I can tell you that the people that are working hard for this community, some of them have to be growing weary because we just keep beating our head against the wall.”
Mucarsel-Powell acknowledges that she feels that, but she sees the opportunities.
But she feels it has been quiet as far as elected officials working for South Dade. She acknowledged the hard work of Mayors Wallace and Shelley, saying “you have everything you need except the support of your county, state and federal representatives.”
Mayor Wallace acknowledged his frustration with Miami-Dade County. “Even yes is a problem. I get a lot of yes’ out of the county. It’s a big voluminous organization that is very, very slow. I just had a project that is two years behind trying to get through the county. And the county put up half the money!”
Mucarsel-Powell started to conclude by saying she will try and bring the chairman of the committee she sits on, Transportation & Infrastructure, to South Dade for his insight and assistance. She said she will also try and speed up the rapid bus system. But she insists they need to be electric buses, which is not part of the current plan.
Schnebly brought up the fact the Miami-Dade has a home rule charter and the effect it has on trying to build in the agriculture area. He notes, “Just think how much it must cost all the lawyers to redo all of the laws that were already done by the state. Secondly, DERM….” The mention of DERM (Department of Environmental Resources Management) brought groans throughout the room. Schnebly noted as a businessman it took him five years to obtain DERM approval for a water treatment system that the state had already approved.
Mayor Wallace agreed saying the joint project they are doing, in partnership with the county, is being delayed by DERM.
Marakas explained that when he built his business in Florida City – an aluminum structure with 10 employees, his impact fees were $250,000. He feels this a ridiculous burden to put on the small business person.
Mayor Wallace supported him by noting that DERM decisions have been concluded on his projects and construction progressed, only to be overturned months later by other DERM employees.
Schnebly agreed and send it is a constant battle between state statutes being overruled by county decisions. He feels it’s ridiculous that he has been encouraged to hire lobbyists for $450 an hour to try to get decisions made.
Mayor Wallace noted that the first hotel Florida City built had impact fees of $400,000. “There is one going up right behind it now. The county has raised the fees to $700,000. Florida City pays over a million a year in bed taxes but sees nothing in return.”
Mayor Shelley said that members of Congress used to be able to assign ear marks, but it was discontinued. “Ever since then we have not been able to get money. It goes to the state. It goes to the county. And as you see they are not working with us. The best thing that could happen in DC, or with Congress, is to be able to pinpoint earmarks or projects.”
Mucarsel-Powell suggested meeting with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. No one could mention seeing him recently, or with any acknowledgeable results driven by the mayor’s office.
Mayor Wallace concluded, “That’s why we need a congresswoman to support us.”