FIU, Miami Dade Youth Fair continues battle over land

As a growing institution, the University doesn’t want to lighten its load; it wants to broaden its shoulders said President Mark B. Rosenberg.

The 64 acres of Miami-Dade’s Tamiami Park that is at the heart of a dispute between the University and the Miami Dade Youth Fair is the planned site of a new engineering center, Rosenberg announced at the State of the University Address held Monday, April 11.

“We’re confident we’re going to get these 64 acres. What’s right is right. We want to continue to grow. We need the additional land,” Rosenberg said at the address.

The engineering center, an estimated $150 million 225,000-square-foot, LEED Certified Gold structure, is planned for the land that is currently the center of a fight between The Youth Fair and the FIU.

“We have a sense of urgency about this because we are basically out of facilities and space at our Engineering Center. We know that there’s a significant opportunity to grow programs within engineering that are part of our strategic plan, but we’re out of space,” Rosenberg said.

The new building, according to Rosenberg, is the start of many great things to come using the 64 acres.

“I’ve said this repeatedly that we’ve turned the impossible into the inevitable and we make the invisible visible. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do here with your strong support,” said Rosenberg.

The building, he says, is somewhat a function of administration imagination with the fight for the land underway.

The Youth Fair, which ran from March 27 to April 10, currently sits on 64 acres that FIU has pursued since 2013. In 2014, the Florida Legislature granted $10 million for the University’s Strategic Land Acquisition initiative and a referendum to allow for the expansion to this land was on the November ballots. A 67 percent “yes” vote to the referendum appeared as a victory for the University.

“Voters knew what they were approving when they overwhelmingly voted in support of the initiative to expand our community’s FIU on November 4, 2014,” said Rosenberg in a press conference held in Parkview Hall Tuesday, April 12. “They know that they need to expand FIU so that FIU is here for generations of students to come. So that FIU helps to continue to build the jobs that would be critical to the economic development and wellbeing of this community.

“So when Mr. Hohenstein levels a broadside against our students, he is attacking the will of the people who voted with a large majority in November to expand FIU and to move the fair at no expense to those same voters,” he said.

The vote, however, came with the condition that a “suitable” site for relocation be found for the Fair, which has a 99 year lease on the land through 2085, as well as the payment of all county costs associated with the relocation. Neither party has been able to agree on what an “acceptable” site would be.

“We are not giving up. We’re also proud of the fact that we’ve gotten a lot of support from the community beyond the 65 percent vote,” Rosenberg said at Parkview.

Since the vote, FIU has been lobbying elected leaders to force the annual event to move. Youth Fair executives blame FIU for causing logistical problems by denying access to the stretch of Southwest 17th Street that runs through campus

Fair-goers use the street to access the park, and FIU’s closing of the street for two Saturdays prompted a flurry of letters from fair lawyers to both the school and the county. FIU said the closures were needed to manage traffic for events on campus, including this weekend’s debut of the Miami FC soccer squad.

“We have always been good neighbors but the fair has outgrown the space and FIU can no longer help make up for it,” Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, FIU’s senior vice president for external relations, said in a statement Sunday. “It’s time to relocate the Fair to a more suitable venue.”

Aside from the annual Fair and Exposition, the nonprofit runs the four-week fair that draws about 600,000 attendees each year, and also also makes money running an expo center that houses trade shows, conventions and weddings during the rest of the year.

The Fair’s lease protections have so far been considered so iron-clad that Gimenez recently described the situation as a card game that he’d like to win on FIU’s behalf — but that he’s bound to lose.

“The Youth Fair has an ace of spades, a king of spades, a queen of spades, a jack of spades, and a 10 of spades,” City of Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in February. “I have a two, a three, a four, a five and a seven.”

A few weeks before the fair’s March 17 start, FIU issued a press release touting student Alexis Calatayud’s petition on urging county leaders to “take action” on the fair site.

“This petition is really important. FIU literally doesn’t have anymore space, and the community need for more people to be educated and have a high quality education grows as the community grows. We don’t have the physical space on our main campus to accommodate what the community needs,” said Calatayud to Student Media.

A few days later, Fair President Robert Hohenstein sent a three-page letter to Calatayud, a senior and president of FIU’s Student Government Association, and urged her to use her campus post to “demand the university stop its divisive, untruthful and deceitful practices.”

The letter also took aim at FIU’s success as a university, with Hohenstein urging Calatayud to pressure the school to support “the 80 percent of your classmates who don’t graduate after four years … and the nearly 50 percent of the students who will spend six years at FIU and still not graduate.”

For the CEO of the Fair to misunderstand FIU student’s gritty, real, and challenging issues impeding them from a ultra-traditional, Ivory Tower experience of attaining a bachelor degree in four years is to essentially not understand, even after decades of service to this community, the ever-pounding, ever-optimistic, ever-striving, heart of Miami-Dade County itself, said Calatayud.

“If he doesn’t understand the issues and challenges of the community, why should we and how can we expect him to understand the transformative solutions FIU Expansion offers to meet our community’s upward mobility and educational needs,” she said.

The CEO’s statements also reached the office of the president.

“Yesterday, the CEO of the Fair chose to attack, in a local newspaper, our students and their hardworking families. This attack was a part of a criticism of our University and its approach to adding more and better educational and job opportunities to our community,” Rosenberg said. “The Fair President chose to disrespect almost all of our students and the will of our community by criticizing our students for not graduating in four years.

“As if he didn’t understand that most of our students work full or part-time. That nearly half of our students are first-generation in college. That most of our students support family members…who need help. That most of our students themselves depend on Pell Grants or other forms of financial support given their limited family incomes.”

On Sunday, FIU’s Gonzalez-Levy responded in a statement: “FIU graduates more than 12,000 students a year. Some FIU students take longer than the traditional four years to graduate because they are working and studying part-time. Mr. Hohenstein is welcome to attend one of our commencement ceremonies in May so that he can see for himself.”

Calatayud, an FIU trustee who has accompanied university administrators in their pitches on the expansion plans to elected officials in Homestead and Doral, organized a demonstration outside the fair Saturday. “We just don’t have the capacity that our students deserve,” she said. “It’s difficult to find a place to be, to sit, to relax between classes. There is almost no places for our student organizations to meet.”

Hohenstein urges compromise rather than banking on a judge’s ruling for one side over the other. “This situation needs to find a solution. A solution where, maybe, there’s a little bit of discomfort for both sides,” he said. “And neither party relies on the judicial system for a resolution.”
Additional reporting from Erica Santiago and TNS Staff.


Photo courtesy of FIU Media Relations

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