Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
South Florida Destined for
World Trade Success

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: Sun-Sentinal 7:13 p.m. Nov. 20, 2000

Moving toward the day when the power of the Internet Coast is fully realized, the South Florida city-state begins with a strong lead in geography and in infrastructure.

Geography has clearly destined South Florida -- if it's up to the challenge -- to become a great world trading center in an era of expanding trade with the historically isolated Latin American continent. Most of the Caribbean and Latin America land masses -- even the Panama Canal -- lie east of South Florida.

"Calling us a gateway may be a cliché, but it's true," says William Cullom, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

But the infrastructure, an impressive product of competing forces, must be tamed and strategically directed to take advantage of nature's gift.

We have made a good start.

Take the Miami-Dade stats: More than 300 multinationals already do business there, plus 41 international banks. The city-county has the most consulates on U.S. soil, after Washington and New York. It hosts the world's largest cruise port. It sees more than $50 billion worth of imports and exports.

Miami International Airport, the world's eighth largest in passenger loads, ranks first in the United States for air freight handled. It reports 1,400 takeoffs and landings, including service to 80 Caribbean and Latin-American airports, daily.

Broward and Palm Beach counties each have their own mega-port operation, rapidly growing airports and wide varieties of businesses in foreign commerce. Broward business handles nearly 30 percent of South Florida's international trade transactions.

Stability brings success

In past decades the growth of Latin American markets has been stymied by dictatorships and faltering economies. The region's long-term interest is in a stable Latin America creating the potential for dramatically expanded legitimate trade, stronger Latin economies and hope for rising wages in Latin countries that have the world's most dire income division between a rich elite and masses mired in poverty.

Signals that Central and South America were ready to take on the challenges of the global economy began in the 1990s. Susan Vodicka, the Miami civic leader who served as chief operating officer for the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami, recalls how thrilling it was to see the 34 democratically elected leaders of Latin and Caribbean nations, with not a single one in uniform.

More recently there has been the election of such men as globalist Vicente Fox in Mexico and parliamentarian Ricardo Lagos in Chile.

Such changes are matched by a hunger for business.

Michael Langley, recently resigned president of the Broward Alliance, accompanied Gov. Jeb Bush's trade mission to Sao Paulo in July, returning, the Sun-Sentinel reported, with a three-inch stack of business cards, many with Brazilian firms considered candidates for significant business deals with Broward companies.

Overall, Latin American economic growth that averaged 2.2 percent yearly in the '80s rose to 3.8 percent average yearly gain in the '90s. By 2001, predictions suggest it will be up to 4.7 percent. With sound economic policies, growth prospects should keep improving. Such gains assume a willing, intelligent helping hand from U.S. regions that hope to share in a progressive, prosperous Latin America.

But how well is South Florida nurturing its infrastructure to do this? How much is it doing to its air and seaports, the arteries through which the commerce flows now, and must in the future.

A single system?

Again and again, we heard that every major transportation system here -- airports, seaports, railroads, highways, lines running north-south, east-west, through all the three urban counties -- requires hard reassessment and fresh strategic approaches.

Why? Because these systems, to be a true system, need to intersect efficiently. But with few exceptions, they don't, because they were planned and built in a go-it-alone, undisciplined way. For starters, could the three major airports be viewed as (or actually become) a single system.

From elsewhere on the globe they look that way, so why not on the ground.

Miami International, Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International and Palm Beach International airports share the same air space, which is getting crowded as the continuing economic boom propels more people and goods airborne. Their respective administrators meet frequently, if informally, to share interests and concerns. But the same can't be said of the three county commissions, the political groups that oversee the facilities. So the airports' policies often overlap and compete.

Here are three regional assets (though MIA also is a statewide asset because of its strong internationally oriented infrastructure) essentially working against, rather than with, each other. Broward's airport is gearing up to attract more of the international travelers now using MIA and to increase its cargo share as well. It recently successfully lobbied for a more-comprehensive U.S. Customs presence to accommodate international travelers. A wise move, given forecasts that global air travel will double in the next decade alone. (Do the math: today, 36 million passengers annually travel through MIA; 12-13 million through Fort Lauderdale.)

Yet both Miami-Dade's and Broward's airports, despite ambitious expansion projects now ongoing, will be at capacity within 25 to 30 years. MIA recently received approval to build a fourth runway, to the displeasure of its residential neighbors north of the airport. Broward's airport has two runways and little prospect of building a third without investing an uncalculated amount to buy a huge chunk of its southern neighbor, Dania Beach. Palm Beach's airport, located outside the urban core, actually has the most expansion opportunity.

A unified management approach, like those used in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area and New York/New Jersey region, could plan and coordinate the airfields' use, ensuring that each airport's strengths complement one another. More domestic travelers could be routed to Palm Beach or Broward to alleviate congestion in Miami-Dade at peak cargo times, for example. In an intensely competitive global environment, a unified regional force can deliver prompt and thoughtful action that's difficult under the current political governing system in which three county commissions act largely independent of each other on such issues.

Unified airspace management could have more clout at winning the annual battle for getting more federal dollars -- in the form of more Customs agents and Department of Agriculture inspectors for all three facilities, for example -- and distributing essential personnel more evenly to all three. Though it's not a politically popular idea right now, a unified management system is sound business sense for the future. It would optimize these three regional assets in a cohesive, cooperative way instead of pitting them against each other and coordinate their use to improve traveling for South Florida's many visitors and residents.

The airport system isn't just a piece of government. It's service to every family and business in the region. If it's not world class, this region can't be either.

The collaborative need is the same for the seaports, especially with a strong cargo threat coming from such areas as Freeport and the never-ending specter of the return of the cruise business to Havana. None of the three seaports can specialize in everything. The investment capital isn't there.

Broward's Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach are becoming equal partners with the Port of Miami. The expansion plans of Port Everglades, which now handles 88 percent as much cargo as Miami, are aimed at a projected 3.4 million cruise ship passengers by 2002 (now 2.2 million passengers annually). The worry is traffic: There's talk of a dedicated people mover between Broward's airport and seaport.

The Palm Beach port is the only one in the region with its own rail system providing 24-hour transfer of containers between ships and trains. Today Miami sees that as competitive pressure, when it actually may turn out to be a relief valve for Miami, where some 10,000 trucks daily crowd busy roadways between the air and sea ports.

The point, of course, is that the entire regional system needs to work together. John LeCapra, Florida Ports Council attorney, stresses the stunning shifts now under way in world wide cargo shipping and the region's complex sea-air-roadway interconnections. He thinks "some sort of super-transportation body is indispensable, if we're to avoid economic loss to other regions."

Landing FTAA key

The imperative to settle infrastructure problems has been highlighted by the formation of modern trading groups.

There are two immediate challenges for the South Florida city-state to establish its supremacy.

One is to capture for Miami the permanent headquarters of the Secretary of the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement negotiations. That agreement, if concluded, would create in the Western Hemisphere a trading block of 800 million people, the world's largest. The FTAA headquarters are presently in Miami; most of the 34 trade ministers would prefer it be there permanently. But soon the headquarters go to Panama for two years, then Mexico for two years. Only then are the hemispheric members to decide on a permanent site.

In the words of Jay Malina, chairman of the Trade Mission Center of the Americas, "Make no mistake. The city that is selected will be the Brussels of this hemisphere. Crucial political decisions will be made there, and companies from worldwide locations will come to set up operations so that they can be part of the decision-making process. The chosen city will, in effect, be the Capital of the Americas."

There is a dark cloud, though: We heard that trade negotiators from the rest of the Americas like the idea of Miami for the permanent FTAA secretariat. But unless the Cuba issue is resolved, with normalized U.S.-Cuba relations, there's virtually no chance Miami will be chosen.

A parallel goal is to take advantage of the trading and economic partnerships to be forged with The Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Haiti. This year, Congress passed the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act, according those nations trading terms analogous to those granted Mexico under NAFTA. The legislation is the first official U.S. recognition of special ties to the region since the 1983 Caribbean Basin Initiative.

Dwarfing South Florida's other Caribbean challenges are Cuba and Haiti. How South Florida works with a post-Castro Cuba, both economically and politically, will determine a great deal of South Florida's as well as the Caribbean's future. And a future of trade and collaboration with Haiti will be critical if that battered land, like Cuba an exporter of so many countrymen to South Florida, is to achieve a reasonable standard of living under democratic conditions.

Reaching out

If nothing else, South Florida's responsibility, and opportunity, is to provide the Caribbean with a mature, progressive economic center, based on transparent, open dealings and a rule of law, a role strongly parallel to the role Hong Kong has played in its part of the world. Few other regions of America have such a clear foreign-policy challenge. Too often, U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America has seemed distracted or disinterested. South Florida leaders should keep pressing to change that.

Yet the region has every reason to reach out directly, region-to-region, city-to-city, to its Latin neighbors. Increasingly around the world, cities are electing mayors anxious to work directly on issues from disaster relief to crime and drugs to environmental degradation.

A ripe area for South Florida-Latin exchange could be in new techniques of "e-government," now about to make local governments worldwide far more responsive and citizen-friendly. Permits, complaints, property information, environmental warnings will increasingly be placed online. Broward County now has the nation's first completely paperless real-estate transaction process -- a model it could export to the Southern Hemisphere.

With blessed geography, revitalized infrastructure and solid politics, all that is left is the marketing. In the Internet age, an exporter in Omaha can reach a customer in Latin America as easily as one in Miami or Fort Lauderdale. But that doesn't eliminate the need for buyers and sellers to rub shoulders at trade shows, seminars, shipping discussions. To talk with legal and insurance experts. To meet potential financiers.

This means creating new physical centers at which visitors can expect a warm reception in their own languages. It extends easily to creative programs in the arts, an area in which the rich varieties of fine and popular arts performances, stretching from Miami to Palm Beach, are a way to draw global visitors who may also turn into trading partners.

Trade, in other words, becomes services as much as physical goods.

From health care to computer information technology, advertising and public relations to telecommunications, business services to architecture and legal services, the list of what Florida is now selling to the Latin world is practically without end.

(There's an entire web site -- Florida -- dedicated to the possibilities.)

Many South Florida firms already are acting on the opportunity. Says Luis Ajamil, a Miamian whose firm does architecture and engineering work worldwide: "Technically, I could do international business with headquarters anywhere. But in professional services, contacts and acquaintances matter a lot. Miami is special, Latins and Europeans like to come here. There's a lot of synergy, that's hard for other cities to replicate."