How businesses can help close the prosperity gap

Miami’s income and opportunity gap is cited by pretty much anyone as one of the city’s most critical issues.

We chatted with Mark Rosenberg, chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and president of FIU, about how the business community can help bridge that gap and help make other fixes that will improve life for all Miamians. We also asked for tips on what to do with out-of-town visitors.

Want to know even more? Next week the Chamber hosts its annual Goals Conference, where locals can go and talk about pretty much everything affecting the city. Sign up for the conference here (Use the code NEWTROPIC2016 for a discount).

This is the second part of a two-part interview and is lightly edited for clarity and length. You can read the first, about sea level rise, here.  

You were one of the speakers at last month’s launch of the prosperity study from FIU and Citi. The takeaway was that Miami has a tremendous income gap that is holding back our economic growth. What do you think about that?

The challenges Miami confronts are no different than any other major metro area. They’re perhaps more acute because we’re a global city. They’re more acute because we’re still building our infrastructure. There are still a lot of decisions to be made.

Richard Florida, who is going to to present at the goals conference, is going to point out that we’ve been a city of change without a blueprint and that that blueprint invariably has to be around the competencies we have in this community: significant brain circulation (as opposed to brain drain), a significant opportunity for new companies to make their mark, a community that is very tolerant and that has an appreciation of ambiguity… but there are gaps and both studies point that out, and those gaps have to be closed.

We get that. My hope is the chamber will play a role in closing those gaps. Those gaps are opportunity gaps, they’re education gaps, they’re income gaps. The more we can shine a light on those, the better off we’ll be.

What do you mean by an appreciation of ambiguity?

This community is a very fragmented community, it’s got a dynamic demographics, it doesn’t have a fixed intransigent power structure, in part because of the fluidity, in part because of the fragmentation, and that creates ambiguity. In ambiguity I see opportunity. In the 21st century, opportunity defines itself in many ways, it defines itself in post-industrial ways, it defines itself in micro and very community-centric ways. The action is in communities, the actions are local, and there’s no blueprint for that. It’s a function of the energy of the community, the leadership the community gets and the goodwill among people in the community.

And I see a lot of that goodwill in the community. The best evidence is how our community came together around hurricane Andrew to recover. Most recently the community is galvanizing around youth violence issues, galvanizing around the public school system, around its education infrastructure. Miami-Dade had a public referendum a few years ago that was overwhelmingly positive, FIU had a public referendum in November 2014 that was very, very positive.

I see directions that auger well for the future. We have good political leadership as well now in our county. Good, honest political leadership, which is very, very important if we’re going to be able to come together. I see a lot of positive elements within the ambiguity. You can’t benchmark Miami against traditional industrial cities. You can’t. Miami never went through an industrial era. Sometimes that’s confusing to people. The service sector is very large, there is no industrial backbone to this community.

How can the Chamber of Commerce, whose role is to be the voice of the business community, help address the prosperity gap?

The Chamber traditionally has had engagement on a range of community issues, whether it’s the homeless or the rampant drug abuse of the 80s that the Chamber got involved in. The Chamber has periodically been involved in affordable housing issues to promote greater awareness of the need for and the options to develop affordable housing, so the Chamber does get involved in non-business issues. Those non-business issues clearly have to have a direct relationship to the quality of the business environment.

One of the things the study looked at is how our labor productivity stacks up to Rust Belt cities like Green Bay, Wisc. and Osh Kosh, Mich. You come from Pittsburgh, also part of the Rust Belt. How does it feel when you hear Miami’s productivity compared with those cities that were struggling so much when you left?

I’m a student of modernization and development and underdevelopment. You can see in Miami, you could in the 1970s and you can today, features that completely mirror cities in developing countries. The gaps in income, the gaps in services, the infrastructure that is never, ever finished or sufficient to the demand, the newness of things and the ambiguities that are generated by that.

Every developing country’s major city has the same characteristics as we do. That’s why [Former New York Mayor Mike] Bloomberg and others identify the income inequality in this city as being as bad as Latin American cities.

Not to say that I accept it, but that’s been an enduring reality of this community for as long as I’ve been here. It’s a new community. It’s a community that never went through an industrial process. It’s a community that reflects all the positives and negatives of globalization.

What do you think of initiatives to raise the minimum wage? (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Miami Beach formally approved a living wage)

I definitely agree with the notion of a living wage, however the living wage has to be paid for. There needs to be a commensurate rise in productivity and wealth in a community to support a living wage, otherwise you’re creating a recipe for disinvestment and a hollowing out of the community.

You feel good for a while, but you’re not making progress. The living wage needs to be accompanied by rising productivity, increasing investment, and rising incomes. If it’s a short-term palliative, it’s not going to help anyone in the long run.

What makes it more than a short term palliative?

One thing I pointed out in our study… is the importance of closing the education gaps. In the 21st century, the cycle of poverty can only be broken through education. If it were up to me I would find more and better ways to keep our kids in school, to get them graduated timely, to make sure they graduate with vocational talent or that they are able to get into and graduate from a state university.

You can raise the minimum wage, but if you don’t have a rising income base, that’s a false promise. Given the competitive nature of globalization, companies will not be able to sustain their employment prospects here. I don’t see the way to do this unless you grow the pie. We know that high taxes are disincentives for communities to prosper. I’d rather find a way to generate better educational opportunities that lead to more job opportunities as a means by which to fight our way out of poverty.

I understand the importance of the living wage though. How you pay for it is another question. Ultimately it’s just going to come back and result in a rising cost of living. So how does it get paid for? We haven’t had a tuition increase for almost four years [at FIU]. We have to find a way to live on what we do. I could use more tuition dollars, but we haven’t had an increase. And we need to find a way to make it work for the university.

There’s a reality that we live in that is unfortunately pushing cost constraints and some of that is just simply a function of globalization. I think our best days are still ahead of us because I’m very encouraged by the evolution of our economy to a more innovative economy, a more startup economy, a more entrepreneurial economy. … We have the second largest number of startups after Silicon Valley [according to the Kaufman Index]. If even half of them make it and each of them employ 10 people, that’s 700,000 jobs in our community.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for Miami going forward? Is it sea level rise?

It’s sea level rise, transportation, and youth violence. The sea level rise issue speaks for itself. We’re surrounded by water. We’ve got to get that figured out, we have a material interest in figuring that out.

We’ve had good leadership on transportation the last few years, we’ve have some really competent people now as transportation planners, but the business community has to galvanize and help the elected officials move the needle. That’s one of my objectives here.

We’ve got to move from rhetoric and planning to doable deeds. One of my objectives for this year in transportation is that we identify a doable deed that we can get done that enhances the momentum we already have. I see All Aboard Florida and the Brightline as a paradigm shift in our community, but it won’t be a paradigm shift unless we build around it — the parallel transit lines and more public conveyances necessary for a paradigm shift take place.

In 20 zip codes of our county, youth violence is a major issue and it’s a major issue for the African American community, so it’s a major issue for the greater Miami chamber of commerce. We are forming a task force to make sure the business community is helping our elected officials do whatever is possible to do whatever needs to be done.

Keeping students off the streets, keeping schools open longer, getting them into more work internships, getting them educational opportunities that help them understand they do have a future beyond the confines of their own community. That gets back to initiatives from Jean Monestime, Daniella Levine Cava, Barbara Jordan, and Audrey Edmonson addressing income inequality and the income and opportunity gaps that exist as a consequence of that.

When we interviewed Commissioner Francis Suarez about the six new rail lines planned by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, he indicated they expect the business community to help jump start a lot of the projects. Is the business community interested?

I think the biz community will come in if and only if the framework is freed up and the prospect of transit oriented developments can finance a lot of this, but if the regular environment isn’t flexible and doesn’t promote it, it won’t happen.

Do you feel there is an understanding and willingness to change that regulatory environment?

I think there is an understanding of what needs to change. Whether there’s a willingness to change it… We’re hopeful.

Alright, enough hard questions. What’s an ideal Miami weekend?

An ideal weekend would definitely be going to the beach, getting some good exercise, going to South Beach, just hanging out.

When you have visitors from out of town who say they want the authentic Miami experience, what do you do with them?

The authentic Miami experience is a combination of South Beach, Calle Ocho, and a good museum. We’ve got a lot of great museums. Usually I’ll take them to the Frost Art Museum or the Wolfsonian or the Jewish Museum of Florida. It’s got to be outdoors, it’s got to have some element of natural beauty, some element of food, and some element of the arts. Those [four] pieces resonate with me.

By The New Tropic Creative Studio
The WhereBy.Us Creative Studio helps clients big and small engage locals, through campaigns that use creative marketing, storytelling, events, and activations to build community, conversation, and impact.