Despite recession, Miamians can create a Happy New Year
By Michael Lewis
Short on New Year's resolutions? Try this: I will do all I can to speed Miami's economic recovery.
It doesn't seem we can do much as the entire globe shudders. But rather than passively accept the worst — which we haven't yet felt — we have one option: do something.
Defining "something" depends on who we are.
For most, it means putting personal and business lives in better order so as not to exacerbate problems, and doing so with hope and cheer. Smiles are as contagious as economic influenza. Any doctor of the economy will tell you the same thing as your physician: you and the rest of us will all get better faster if you kick aside gloom.
But many of Miami Today's readers have more options for "doing something."
Those who run businesses can find solutions beyond the false hope of cutting their ways to prosperity. Even in the worst of times, smart operators do well by taking advantage of ill winds.
One Miami Beach service station owner says business is up because people who want to trade in sputtering cars but can't get financing for new ones are having him repair their clunkers.
What areas in our own businesses that might have been second-tier projects last year can we use to sustain us in 2009? We have a prime opportunity to market our niches as many potential competitors stop trying and passively hibernate until the economic freeze thaws. Those who plan to maximize have no time to hibernate.
The more businesses that battle the downturn rather than slink away to hibernate, the more money will flow and the less pain the workforce will feel. Added sales always beat layoffs in the prosperity game.
Beyond new niches, what springboards to recovery does Miami have?
Most important would be a unified effort by business groups to combat the recession in three ways:
nSet up a one-stop center to help the jobless find work opportunities and aid of all types. Miami has done this before.
nLink and fortify smaller companies to help them stay afloat and even grow in bad times. That's a typical chamber of commerce role, but now all chambers need to work together, as the county's Coalition of Chambers says is planned. It's distressing that so many Greater Miami Chamber members are said to be closing their doors before the effort has begun.
nAgree on a handful of job targets where government can train its guns to get the biggest bang for its limited bucks. Update decade-old One Community, One Goal industry targets to focus on higher-paying jobs that can multiply as recovery begins.
With the rest of the nation, we're certain to get federal cash to quickly spur jobs. But unlike people, all jobs are not created equal. Our elected and appointed officials must target not just any jobs but those that will fuel economic engines for future growth.
Wasted federal money won't come again. When the City of Miami asks for $175 million to resurface every inch of the city's streets in order to create 3,500 jobs, it's only one step above hiring 1,750 people to dig holes and 1,750 more to fill them up again. When the work was done, we'd be left with nicer streets but not one more job. At least the city could limit its aid request to streets that actually need resurfacing.
Assuming $175 million might be available, we should ask: What's the best way to spend it in order to not just create construction jobs now but build the economy for the future?
Building a meeting center, for example, would add business, fill hotel rooms and restaurants and create thousands of permanent jobs for decades. So if one of our targets was our visitor industry, a meeting center could be legitimate job-building spending.
If bio-medical were a target, we might consider an incubator hub for bio-med entrepreneurs for the $175 million. Since knowledge industries and a stronger workforce are vital, infrastructure also could target strategic educational needs.
Valid choices are many — so long as we don't just dump federal aid down a sewer with work that leaves behind no future job generators. Rather than just spend US aid, we need to weave our efforts into the county's long-term growth plan — once we craft one.
Make no mistake: no matter what we do, recovery will take time. And no matter what we fail to do, Miami will at some point recover. The opportunity we should seize is to ease the pain of decline while building a ramp for a future economic takeoff that will send us higher than before.
We already have many advantages for that recovery.
All those condos that we overbuilt will make fine housing as our workforce expands and future prosperity allows more Miamians to move up to downtown or Brickell.
All the hotel rooms coming on line now will still be there when the economy recovers and global tourism flows strengthen. And if we improve our meeting facilities, we'll fill more rooms sooner and at higher rates.
The sun and warmth, the beaches and the ethnic mix that have all made Miami a global magnet will still be here when we recover. If we upgrade our educational system, even more of us will be poised to take advantage of that rebirth.
Miami's global reputation will stay strong, too. And if we're smart and energetic enough in our rebuilding plans, we'll be able to market that reputation even more effectively — and the hype will all be true.
Clearly, recovery is not just a case of getting everyone to spend more, or printing money to add jobs, or smiling a lot, or organizing a local posse of business organizations to gun down the recession. The underlying problems would still be there if we took every one of those steps — but we'd also be far better off if we took them, because each step lowers barriers in our climb back to prosperity.
So rather than just waiting for the cavalry from Washington and letting whatever happens happen, we need to take the right steps right now so that we ease the pain and prepare to gain.
Those in a position to help us get moving should do so immediately. The rest of us should resolve to lend a hand as Miami's recovery work begins and to hold business and government leaders accountable if they sit back and do nothing but talk.
If we play those cards right, we can still make it a Happy New Year!