Tri-county unity seen as ideal by Urban Land Institute planners
By Jaime Levy
With commuting data from US Census 2000 due to be released in 2003, proponents of tri-county regionalism are starting to weigh what it would take to formally reclassify the area as South Florida, an entity with a population of more than 5 million people.
For the 2000 census, the US government created the concept of core-based statistical areas - or, similarly, a combined statistical area - based on the percentage of people who live in one county and work in another. If the figure is hefty enough, the classification is automatic. In the case of a significant but smaller number of inter-county commuters, broad public support for a new grouping would be needed.
Proponents of a single statistical entity say officially calling Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties South Florida could be a tremendous marketing tool, yield more federal funds and cut redundancies between the three governments without eliminating any's autonomy.
The marketing aspect of a demographic shift might be the clearest possible advantage, proponents say. Together, the three counties have a population that would bounce the region to 10th largest in the country.
Miami-Fort Lauderdale today ranks 12th with about 3.9 million residents, and West Palm Beach-Boca Raton places 45th, with about 1.1 million.
Local demographers say they are also considering including Martin County in a combined metropolitan area.
"When a national corporation plugs into the national statistics base and they say we're looking to relocate the corporation, let's see what Miami is, it says it's only 300,000 people down there," said Michael Cannon, managing director of Integra Realty Resources-AREEA/South Florida and a member of the US Urban Land Institute's local executive committee. "They can't find all the information in one report. If they have to make a big decision between Miami and Kansas City, Miami and Houston, Miami and Dallas, why should they even consider Miami?"
Mr. Cannon and other members of the Urban Land Institute spent much of its first annual State of the Region meeting - held Nov. 7 at the Broward Convention Center - considering ways a regional classification could draw more major corporations to the area.
According to Integra, in 2000 the three counties together had $3.6 billion in building permits for 21,600 single-family homes and 14,100 multi-family units; $160 billion in gross sales; 190,000 students enrolled in institutions of higher education; $26.6 billion in new and existing single-family homes and condominiums; more than 300 multi-national corporations, and 41 international banks.
"Individually, we have comparative advantages," said Larry Pelton, president of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County. "Together, we have a competitive advantage over other parts of the state and many parts of the country."
Another advantage supporters cite is the political power that could emerge from a united South Florida.
Frank Schnidman, attorney with Greenberg Traurig, said the region could be eligible for $1 billion more in federal funds if it were considered a single entity.
"Right now, if Broward County appeals for participating in a government program, you're talking about 1.2 million people. If the applications would include the 5 million in the region, we're at a different level," Mr. Schnidman said. "The larger the governmental entity, the greater the funds available are to service you."
Mr. Schnidman and other advocates said they aren't looking for a single government structure to control the region. Instead, they said, they would like regional governance - in other words, a way to address regional issues such as transportation on a regional scale.
"We are in danger in Southeast Florida of losing substantial economic development opportunities because our transportation network is at a gridlock," Mr. Schnidman said. "Companies in Miami are concerned about moving goods and services out of the port because of the over-capacity on I-95. If in fact you're getting transportation money, it's a system that's going to service all three counties."
Establishment of a formal region would probably depend on the support of political leaders, he said, because demographers are skeptical that the area will reach the 25% commuting level - the percentage of the labor force that lives in one county and works in another - that would automatically reclassify South Florida.
"Our gut feeling is that the Census 2000 data will only show higher percentages commuting than in 1990," said John McHenry, president of Miami-based Demographic Data for Decision-Making, "but we won't get automatically merged."
More likely, Dr. McHenry said, with a commuting rate at 15% to 20% it will be left up to the politicians.
"If we do meet the criteria and don't join, it would probably be because the politicians don't want it - economic developers and urban planners would want it," he said. "I would hope our politicians are above any parochial issues."
"It's about time our local politicians stood up and said, I'm a leader in this municipality, which is part of South Florida," Mr. Cannon said. "Instead, they're saying, I'm a leader in this municipality, which is South Florida. It's so important for the region, because if not, we're going to be a second-class citizen."