Stierheim reflects on years with county, won't disappear
By Catherine Lackner
Outgoing Miami-Dade Manager Merrett Stierheim continues to be "quite bullish" on the county's future for 2001 and beyond. And he refuses to rule out a continuing role in leadership circles.
In the wake of a tumultuous presidential election and rumors of recession, "both nationally and here locally, we've all got our eye on the economic indices and hoping the manipulation of the interest rate by the Fed will have the desired effect," Mr. Stierheim said.
"As we speak, people are becoming a little more bullish that that will happen, although there is still quite a body of guarded pessimism."
The situation for Miami-Dade is more complicated, he said, because events outside the county and country often are felt here.
"We have to be a little guarded in our enthusiasm," Mr. Stierheim said. "Our major industries are strong, but I worry about the economic and political conditions in many of the countries in Central and South American and in the Caribbean who are our trading partners and also a major source of our tourist and visitor business. I feel reasonably confident there too, but there are areas that I think we have to monitor closely."
The convention, visitor and tourism industry remains among the strongest in the area, he said.
"I feel very positive about that. We have a tremendous growth in new hotels and refurbished properties. We're rebooking conventions, which we hadn't done for many years. The quality of the accommodations in South Beach is strong; Coconut Grove and Bal Harbour continue to be strong."
International trade and commerce, the county's second largest industry, "certainly has the potential of being affected by the areas of caution I mentioned before, mainly hinging on the economy and stability of South America and some of the island nations," he said.
Domestically, Mr. Stierheim said, he thought the county weathered the Elian Gonzalez storm fairly well.
"In terms of our diversity, I always take a somewhat optimistic position that out of diversity comes strength. There was a lot of trauma and polarization over the Elian affair, but there was also a lot of dialogue, which was cathartic.
"History will determine the accuracy of that," he said, "but I hope I'm right.
"In terms of government, obviously I'm concerned," Mr. Stierheim said just days before Tuesday's nomination by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas of Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver to become the new county manager. There have also been rumors that Mr. Penelas would like to eliminate the office altogether.
"I would emphasize the need for professional management. I don't think there's too much confusion about what Mr. Penelas would like to achieve," Mr. Stierheim said. "It's going to be a struggle for him, first with the county commission and then if it gets to the voters.
"I am concerned," he said, "about the apparent willingness of some of our legislative leaders to try to control what should be local decision-making on the part of the county," he said, referring to a move by State Rep. Carlos Lacasa to usher in a strong mayor model of county government through legislative action.
"Threatening to effect change in Tallahassee rather than to do it through the charter and through referendum locally troubles me. There's a role for all elected officials. When you start stepping into each others' turf, you've got problems."
Pushing through the financing for the proposed performing arts center is one of the crowning achievements of his latest term as county manager, Mr. Stierheim said.
"I'm very pleased the county commission has approved that it will be a landmark to carry us through the next millennium. It sends a signal that we have matured culturally as a community. It's a tremendous asset for everyone."
Beyond that, Mr. Stierheim said, "I am setting forth for the commission a plan for a major capital improvements program, through general obligations bonds, without a tax increase. I hope the commission will put it to the voters."
The $3 billion package of improvements, set to be undertaken over two years, would be financed through a variety of financial instruments with the bonds bringing in about half of the money.
"We've already identified a tremendous number of infrastructure needs," Mr Stierheim said. "It's been 28 years since we had a major, sweeping general bond issue."
Putting the program in place, he said, "obviously would require political leadership to provide opportunities for citizen involvement and business education.
"We have to try to determine where it is we want to go and how to get there. We've got to see who is visioning for the future.
"On the education front, we should all be excited about FIU; it's a very energetic and positive institution. I also think Donna Shalala is going to bring a lot of energy to the University of Miami. Barry University continues to expand and progress.
"We obviously have a lot of challenges at the secondary level, which the school system is dealing with. A human and social service alliance is progressing nicely and I'm happy about it."
Mr. Stierheim, 67, resigned from the county manager's position in November and will be leaving office in March, but, he said, "I didn't retire I resigned." He said he has no intention of disappearing.
"I will be doing something in the community in a leadership position," he said. "There are people who have approached me with interesting positions but I haven't made any decisions yet."
The county manager, who holds a master's degree in governmental administration from the Wharton School of Business & Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, began his career in 1959 as a city government intern and assistant city manager for the City of Miami.
After stints as city manager of Clearwater and administrator of Pinellas County, on Florida's West Coast, he was appointed Dade County manager in 1976.
His nine-year tenure saw crises such as the 1980 McDuffie riots and the Mariel boatlift and successes such as the construction of Metrorail and MetroZoo.
In 1986, he left the county to become CEO of Women's Professional Tennis, moving the sports association's headquarters from San Francisco to Miami.
In 1990, Mr. Stierheim accepted the post of president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, where he remained until 1996, when he was drafted to become Miami interim city manager in the wake of Operation Greenpalm and the indictments of then-city manager Cesar Odio and other city officials.
In 1998, Mr. Stierheim returned to county office as Miami-Dade County manager after Armando Vidal was fired.
"I'm not ready to go out to pasture," Mr. Stierheim said. "I've got a lot of energy left in the tank."