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Miami Herald 1/26/02

Mimi Whitefield

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas' second Economic Summit began with flashing lights, smoke machines and an upbeat soundtrack, but the economic news -- especially since Sept. 11 ---- has been more sobering.

It's been four years since the county's first economic summit -- a time when the local unemployment rate topped 7 percent while the national economy boomed. By last August, the county's unemployment rate had fallen to 5.3 percent but in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, it once again tops 7 percent.

``A lot of things changed, and that's one of the reasons we're here today,'' Penelas told a crowd of more than 1,000 who gathered for the all-day brainstorming session at AmericanAirlines Arena. Although Penelas said he had always intended to hold a second summit, ``in view of the different and daunting challenges we now face, our urgency is obvious.''

He made it clear his own priorities are improving transportation and education, and he reiterated his call for an independent airport authority to oversee county-run Miami International Airport and manage it as a ``business enterprise'' with a board of directors that deals exclusively with airport development issues.

Penelas told the business, civic and community leaders in attendance that it was up to them to set the county's new economic blueprint.

``We are here to provide you with our ideas and vision. You are here to establish priorities and make recommendations for action.''

After the morning session, participants broke into 14 workshops on everything from the top growth industries, workforce development and education to economic revitalization and poverty, transportation and the airport and seaport. Each panel presented its recommendations at the close of the summit.

Despite the aftershock of Sept. 11, more than 70,000 jobs were created between December 1998 and December 2001, said J. Antonio Villamil, a local economist and chairman of the Governor's Council of Economic Advisors.

But Miami-Dade still has the highest unemployment rate in the state and ``we need to accelerate job creation,'' he said.

Kathleen B. Cooper, undersecretary for economic affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said economic signals are still mixed, ``but stabilization seems to be occurring.'' She predicted it wouldn't be long before economic indicators are ``much more positive.''

A key factor in recovery, she said, will be a ``turnaround in overall business investment.''

Before the group broke up for the workshops, Penelas outlined his own priorities.

``The transportation dilemma of our community is choking us. We must find ways to clear our highways,'' he said.

The county, he said, needs to find a dedicated source of transportation funding to take advantage of federal matching funds. Voters turned down a penny sales tax increase in July 1999 that would have funded transportation, and county officials say they want to revisit the issue this year.

A one-cent sales tax increase could raise $300 million for transportation.

Over the next 20 years traffic congestion in the county will increase by 300 percent and by 2005, a 30-minute commute will take 48 minutes, pointed out Allen Harper, a director of the Tri-County Rail Authority.

Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton said he wanted to see the county and city forge more partnerships and work together on common goals.

``Miami has really taken a go-it-alone process for 20 years or so,'' he said. In that time, Winton noted, it has become the poorest large city in the country.

Peter Roulhac, co-chairman of the event and an executive of First Union National Bank, noted that economic progress had been made since 1998 -- though not in all distressed neighborhoods. ``We must progress as one community with equal opportunity for all or we will not progress at all,'' he said.