Local government, private industry draw battle plans for economic war
By Jonathon Gutierrez
Two weeks after the Sept. 11 attack on the US, local officials and private industries are rallying to offer a range of economic recovery ideas to aid businesses hit by the recent drop in tourism.
The reaction is a response to immediate and severe drops in travelers, which is resulting in hardships, not only for the hospitality industry but for all businesses that expect to be hit by an economy weakened by a lack of spending.
Proposals range from the speeding up of public works projects to encouraging residents to spend a weekend in a Miami Beach hotel.
"The governor," said Frank Nero, president of the Beacon Council, "is projecting 6% unemployment for the state. With our dependence on aviation, it is not inconceivable that we could see our unemployment rate spike up to 8%, 9% or even higher, particularly if this is protracted.
"Not only the direct aviation jobs from the airlines, but everything is interdependent," Mr. Nero said. "Ninety-six percent of our people, not only tourists but business travelers, come here by air. If that starts cutting back, we could see tremendous layoffs."
Among ideas on the drawing board:
nCity of Miami commissioners want to issue bonds for new parks, storm sewer improvements and marina upgrades. With an estimated debt millage rate at $1.216, the city could issue about $299 million in bonds, said Carlos Gimenez, city manager. City of Miami voters would need to approve a bond issue Nov. 13.
nThe Miami Chamber of Commerce is organizing an economic recovery task force to accelerate capital works projects. While a cost for the project has not been set, it may be as high as $20 billion.
nMiami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas has formed a general task force to analyze the economic problem and and try to bolster the hospitality industry. The group is working on a marketing program to reassure travelers that it is safe to fly to Miami.
Speaking to the county commission Tuesday, Mayor Penelas said the airport alone is losing $600,000 a day from the drop in travel, or $11 million this month. He said the hospitality industry is losing $22 million a day.
Robert D. Cruz, senior economist for the Washington Economics Group, a consulting firm based in Coral Gables, said if the downturn is prolonged to nine months, the county could suffer a loss of 19,400 jobs, a $900 million decline in the gross county product and a $1.5 billion decline in gross business revenues.
"Right now," Mr. Cruz said, "we see consumer confidence weakening. We're not sure how long the layoffs in the industry are going to be for. We really don't know what's going to happen."
Miami-Dade County officials have established two similar economic recovery task forces.
One, called the Economic Generation & Recovery Task Force, is being co-chaired by Steve Shiver, Miami-Dade County manager, and Jack Lowell, chairman-elect of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. It is charged with focusing on projects that would accelerate the pace of already planned capital expenditures.
A second is being formed by Mr. Penelas.
While the Economic Generation & Recovery Task Force's initial mission statement said its goal is to identify a minimum of $20 billion in infrastructure projects during the next year, Mr. Lowell said it was too soon to calculate how much the project would ultimately cost.
"The big dollars fall in the public sector, in the area of transportation, schools and infrastructure programs such as the performing arts center," Mr. Lowell said. "Obviously you go after the big money first, then look at the private sector."
The group is being sponsored by the Beacon Council, Enterprise Florida, the Greater Miami Chamberof Commerce, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, Miami-Dade County, United Way and Visit Florida USA.
In addition to an executive committee of chairman from sponsoring organizations, the group will form several smaller teams to focus on hospitality & tourism, aviation, building & zoning, communications, regional cooperation, empowerment zone projects, infrastructure expediting, economic trends & data collection and a dislocated workers' center.
"One of the principle challenges of this is allowing for communication and coordination," Mr. Lowell said. "We're hoping we have everyone at the table that can help, from social service agencies to the United Way and the various economic development organizations. Hopefully, we'll be able to get the maximum benefits out of our joint effort."
The group's mission statement identifies several initiatives, including speeding all pending building permits and construction projects and advancing immediate construction of all pending infrastructure projects.
On Thursday, Mayor Penelas called a meeting of his group to discuss what efforts should be made to help promote the local economy, especially the ailing hospitality industry, suffering from the decline in air travel.
Mr. Lowell said he did not see either task force becoming permanent.
"This is a short-term effort," Mr. Lowell said. "We recognize that our hospitality industry is in dire straits and we have to focus on short-term stimulus to the economy."
The mayor's group - which includes Beacon Council President & CEO Nero; Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Angela Gittens, county aviation director - discussed various ways to reassure travelers that it was still safe to travel to Miami.
"It's very positive to have our political leadership and the business community come together in this way," Mr. Talbert said. "It really shows the strength of the community in dealing with problems like this. We're looking at solutions."
The meeting, he said, resulted in plans to establish a marketing program to reassure travelers that it is still safe to travel. The group is also working on a marketing program to convince Miami residents to use travel services within the county.
The Beacon Council donated $250,000 to the marketing effort and the convention bureau gave $50,000. The county is to match those funds.
The project, dubbed 'Make Miami My Miami,' would include special rates at Miami Beach hotels offered through the convention bureau's website at miamiandbeaches.com.
On Tuesday, Mr. Penelas held a press conference calling this weekend a "freedom weekend" and asking residents to stay at local hotels and visit attractions such as Parrot Jungle and the Seaquarium. Residents should go out to dinner or to the mall, he said.
"Go out and contribute to the economy," he said. "As my wife said, it has never been more patriotic to go shopping."