Officials have a transportation plan to make Miami-Dade commutes less painful. What comes next? Who’s footing the bill?

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Miami-Dade County Transit Director Alice Bravo and state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Miami, spoke Tuesday about transportation.

By Anna Timmons

The Miami Hurricane / University of Miami

Three local influencers at the Florida Priorities Summit on Tuesday, Nov. 19, talked about progress in Miami-Dade County to clear up the congested highways and main roads that Miamians know all too well.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Miami-Dade County Transit Director Alice Bravo and Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. of Miami, spoke about public transportation on an afternoon summit panel.

Suarez and Bravo discussed the status of the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) Plan, which was first adopted back in 2016 by the county’s Transportation Planning Organization’s governing board.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Miami-Dade County’s Metrorail system has 22 stations, running from Dadeland South station north to the Palmetto station at Northwest 79th Street. Metromover loops throughout downtown Miami provide mobility from the northern School Board station south to Brickell Avenue. Both systems stop at the downtown Government Center.

The SMART Plan will add metro lines connecting commuters to Kendall Drive in southwest Miami-Dade, Northwest 27th Avenue in Miami Gardens and northeast Miami-Dade near Biscayne Boulevard. Other popular tourist destinations such as the Design District, Wynwood and South Beach would be connected through a beach corridor train spanning across the MacArthur Causeway.

“The highway system here is maxxed out. And therefore, if the highways are meant for the movement of people and goods, well then if they’re congested, we’re not moving people and goods,” said Bravo, pointing to the need for the plan.

Miami-Dade County Transit Director Alice Bravo.

Miami faces a huge traffic problem as there are 2.8 million people in the area, 2.1 million people with driver’s licenses and approximately 1.1 cars for each licensed driver, Suarez said.

The panel discussed current accessibility issues in Miami as a result of the current public transportation system. Getting around Miami adds a significant price to the cost of living. The Miami Herald reported that a person who commutes daily from Kendall to downtown Miami could spend around $1,000 a year in tolls alone.

“The working poor can no longer afford to use our highway system. So what’s happening? They still need to get to work so they’re just using our city streets and then it’s creating a huge disruption of quality of life for our residents that before the streets used to be theirs,” Suarez said.

The SMART Plan could provide relief to those unable to afford the cost of having a car in Miami, as well as an improved quality of life.

“We give people more opportunities if they have a good transit system to rely on. They’ll have access to jobs, to education, better healthcare,” Bravo said.

However, achieving the goals of the SMART Plan is going to require leadership and tough budget choices, the mayor said.

Miami-Dade is seeking both federal and state funding for the project.

“Now is the time when we have to leave it to the state hopefully to help us expand our mass transit capacities,” Suarez said.

The state currently has a $48.1 billion transportation plan, however the main focus of this money is the state highway system. Diaz said “the state’s view on transportation is connectivity throughout the state and interstate.”

State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Miami.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a record $91.4 billion budget for the state of Florida on Monday, Nov. 18.

“This is a time of plenty, this is a time where the state has the resources. It seems to me that this is also the time to start asking these kinds of questions about where we are going to invest in the future,” said panel conversation leader Mary Ellen Klas, the capital bureau chief at the Miami Herald.

In the meantime, Miami is investing in a rapid-transit bus system which was approved back in August of 2018. The project has a $304 million budget and will add 20 miles to the bus system, the Miami Herald reported. These buses will use dedicated express lanes and stations, bringing riders out of the congestion and saving them time, Bravo said.

She explained that with the SMART Plan and expanded bus systems, Miami will be on its way to “creating that robust transit network where you can have a car-optional community.”

Florida’s economy is booming, influencers say it’s time to disrupt it

According to environment panel member and eMerge Americas President Melissa Medina, tech-related startups racked in $1.4 billion in startup funding during the first half of 2019 in Miami alone.

By Gerard Albert III

PantherNOW / Florida International University

Florida’s economy continues to grow, and so does its population.

At the Florida Priorities Summit, produced by the Miami Herald and hosted by the University of Miami, experts weighed in on how they think the state’s economy needs to adjust. Some influencers think the next step in Florida’s economy is technology, not tourism. 

Melissa Medina, president of eMerge Americas, says the state government needs to change for the future. 

“Our government needs to look at a long-term strategy to pivot a bit from just focusing on tourism, agriculture and real estate,” she said.

Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo, agrees. He says Orlando’s growth isn’t coming from tourism like it has in the past. A record 126.1 million out-of-state visitors came to Florida in 2018. The tourism industry brought in $86 billion in 2017, much of that thanks to Orlando’s theme parks.

“Orlando had 130 million tourists this year, their growth is occurring outside tourism, it’s more in tech and aerospace,” Vitner said.

Richard Florida is a researcher at the Florida International University Creative City Initiative. He acknowledged the need for different jobs to revitalize the mostly-service driven economy where over a third of renters in Miami are cost-burdened.

“I think the problem in Florida, and in particularly for Miami, when it comes to housing, it’s not housing for tech workers — it’s housing for poor people,” he said. Miami is the worst large metropolitan area in the country, according to an FIU Metropolitan Center study.

Housing was another issue addressed at the summit. Experts called on state legislation to amend bills and incentivize developers to build more affordable housing units.

Medical marijuana economy hits new highs in Florida, dispensaries expand to Orlando

Video by Caitlin Pickens and Eddie Messel.

By Daniella Medina / University of Central Florida

Even though Florida only legalized medical marijuana three years ago, the economic benefits continue to roll in, despite challenges and misconceptions, a panel of cannabis experts said Tuesday at the Florida Priorities Summit.

Florida ranks second in the nation for medical marijuana industry growth, according to Marijuana Business Daily, and is ranked as the third most populous state with a program for over 250,000 qualified patients, according to the Florida Department of Health.

But that’s only the start, said panelist Nikki Fried, Florida agriculture commissioner who campaigned on a platform that stressed easier access to medical marijuana.

The first storefront dispensary near the University of Central Florida campus, operated by MedMen, will be opening before the end of the year. MedMen operates dispensaries all over the country, and opened its first Orlando location on International Drive on Oct. 25, one of seven it has in Florida.

Having a location near a college campus — the UCF dispensary will be on University Boulevard — has health, economic and safety benefits, Fried said.

Fried noted that college students already have easy access to bars near campus, and access to medical marijuana doesn’t change that, as long as it isn’t abused.

“You don’t hear violence associated with marijuana — you hear it more with the alcohol,” Fried said. “So if we could curtail the alcohol problems we see on campus, that might be the good balancing.”

The growth of the medical cannabis business can translate to real economic growth, Fried said, including an influx of jobs, real estate and tourism, according to Fried.

Despite the economic benefits that hit when medical marijuana dispensaries are established in an area, there have been concerns that an increase in crime would come along with it — someone is walking into a business with cash and walking out with a controlled substance, Fried said.

However, the dispensaries opening across the state shatter those preconceived notions when you walk in or drive by them. Fried compared the sharp storefronts and intricate interiors of some dispensaries to a combination of Starbucks, Ikea and Apple.

Fried said the community’s realization that a dispensary is not an eyesore allows the real estate industry to flourish around it, bringing new customers to older buildings, strip malls and stand-alone buildings like banks and fast food restaurants.

The business has the potential to provide a boost to Florida’s top industry — tourism — particularly if Florida expands to recreational marijuana use.

While medical pot is not taxed, recreational would be. And the panelists agreed that legalization is just a matter of time.

“Tax it, don’t tax it too much, ‘cause you’ll push it to the black market,” said Matthew Ginder, senior counsel in the Cannabis Law practice group at Greenspoon Marder.

Fried said taxes could also lead to more jobs, more opportunities for education, more housing options among other economic benefits like reducing opiate addiction, cheaper healthcare and criminal justice reform.

There is already a push for recreational, led by MedMen along with another marijuana distribution company, Surterra, who are on the forefront of a constitutional amendment campaign, Make It Legal.

Make It Legal is currently seeking voter approval for the recreational marijuana amendment which needs approval from the Florida Supreme Court and 60% of voters in 2020 in order to be passed.

Florida officials look toward electric to help solve climate woes

From left: Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald; Francis Suarez, mayor of the City of Miami; Alice Bravo, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works; and Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. Photo by Jonah Hinebaugh

By Jonah Hinebaugh

University of South Florida – St. Petersburg

The population of Florida is growing. And growing.

Between 2010 and 2018, there was a 13.3 percent increase in the state’s population. Pinellas County saw an increase of 58,476 people while Miami-Dade had an increase of 263,568 people.

With the increase of bodies, and vehicles, comes clogged highways, neighborhoods disrupted by traffic, and an increasing need for solutions to the congestion and environmental impacts.

On Nov. 19, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. and Alice Bravo, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works, gathered to discuss the viability of a statewide transportation plan.

The event was led by Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s capital bureau chief. It took place during the second annual Florida Priorities Summit at the University of Miami’s Donna Shalala Student Center.

“People [in Miami] are not used to public transportation and it takes a lot,” Diaz said. “A lot of folks, if you tell them that when they take a train or bus and they still got to walk eight blocks to their final destination, they’re looking at you like you’re completely crazy.”

People’s tendency to opt out of public transportation has led to massive increases in vehicle emissions across Florida.

Both the Tampa and Miami metro areas had similar increases in total emissions since 1990. The Tampa metro area had a 55 percent increase and the Miami metro area had a 58 percent increase, according to an article published in the New York Times in early October.

Suarez said investing in electric grids for electric cars and solar energy is a possible solution.

“We need to prioritize solar, and we’re doing that,” he said. “We’re trying to create incentives for people to use solar technologies, which are becoming less and less expensive by the day, and then certainly anything that we can do at the state level or at the county level to promote electric vehicles. I always say that I think we’re one lease away from everyone having an electric vehicle.”

Despite not owning one himself, Suarez said it could be coming within the next three to four years.

“When you look at the dynamics of electric vehicles, if they’re made at an expense level that are added below the average car, there is no incentive not to have one,” he said. “Essentially, it’s an economic argument. It isn’t even an environmental argument at that point, because the maintenance is almost nothing.”

Car charging stations have cropped up across the urban hubs of Florida including the Tampa Bay and Miami-Dade areas.

In December 2018, the city of St. Petersburg partnered with Duke Energy — whose regional headquarter is housed there — to bring its “park and plug” program to the city. The company’s initiative focuses on encouraging clean transportation by installing electric vehicle charging stations.

USF St. Petersburg also partnered with the corporation to bring six chargers to its campus earlier this year.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are more than 100 charging stations in Miami.

“A few years ago, an initiative started to have compressed natural gas buses, and we actually just finished a procurement to buy 33 electric buses,” Bravo said. “So we’re going to start exploring that as a possibility.”

The challenge for leaders would then be overcoming the stigma associated with riding public transportation.

“I think that’s an issue in the entire country,” Bravo said. “There’s less of a stigma for rail than for bus. When you take the time to ride the bus, and you see who’s using, it’s the same people pretty much using the rail — people going to work, people that work in the hospital, people that work construction jobs or any kind of job anywhere.”

Bravo followed up by saying a big differentiator between the two is time savings.

“So that’s why with our BERT network we’re looking at ways to get the bus out of the congestion,” she said. “If you’re in the same congested roadway then you’re not you’re not saving time.

“We’re always looking forward to show people ‘Hey, the people riding transit are just like you,’” she said. “When people ask me ‘What are you gonna do about congestion?’ I’m like ‘Well, I’m gonna get you out of your car.’ If you’re stuck in traffic and you look around, pretty much every car around you, there’s a single person in each car so as long as we have that we’re going to have problems.”

The U.S. Census Bureau found that only 1.3 percent of people use public transportation to commute to work in the Tampa metro area. The Miami metro area was only slightly higher at 3.1 percent.

“There’s the fear of the unknown,” Bravo said. “Once people have tried the transit system … the reaction is fairly positive.”

Diaz said the stigma is due to Miami being a relatively new metropolitan area and the societal norm of owning a car.

“It’s hard to break that habit because people see it as losing an element of freedom,” he said. “I mean you’re not going very far you’re stuck in traffic, but they feel like it.”

Diaz thinks the efforts to improve the environmental and community impacts of transport should stay hyperlocal.

“The state’s view on transportation is connectivity throughout the state and interstate,” he said. “I think we have to take our lead more from what’s going on locally, grassroots responsibility and grassroots solutions.”

He referenced development, both the shortcomings and how it can get ahead of original plans, leading to public dollars being thrown into the wind with no results in cities such as Miami.

“I think that having some of these homegrown solutions and trying to figure out what the state’s role is then to support us,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s capacity for federal dollars [and] some of it is actual state dollars that are put into play.

“The state can be supportive and will be supportive, but I think you have to have specific targeted and narrow plans that can help those communities.”

“The Green Rush:” Floridians discuss cannabis’ impacts.

Miami Herald political and health policy editor Amy Driscoll, left, leads the summit’s panel on health care. Nikki Fried, Florida Agriculture Commissioner, Matt Ginder, senior council at a cannabis law practice firm, and Ann-Marie Wong, a medical marijuana physician.

By Ana Escalante

The Alligator / University of Florida

Experts from throughout Florida met Tuesday to discuss the state’s budding industry: cannabis.

Fifty of Florida’s influential leaders came together to discuss the growing concern over the use of medical marijuana during the Florida Priorities Summit at the University of Miami.

Florida is one of 33 states where residents can legally purchase medical marijuana after obtaining a state-issued card following a doctor’s visit.

From April 2018 to April 2019, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries has more than tripled, growing from 46 to to 148, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Despite the Food and Drug Administration not having approved cannabis yet, medical marijuana in Florida is set to become a “billion-dollar-industry” over the next few years, with over 200,000 active patients on the registry, according to Amy Driscoll, the Miami Herald’s politics and health policy editor.

Here’s how a doctor, patient and an elected official see the cannabis boom around the state: 

Dr. Ann-Marie Wong, medical marijuana physician

The two active components in medical marijuana — THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol and CBD, cannabidiol — work together to ease pain, reduce anxiety, and control aggressive behaviors according to Ann-Marie Wong, a medical marijuana physician.

Dr. Ann-Marie Wong, a medical marijuana physician.

Medical marijuana can be administered through topical creams, pills, or vaporizer cartridges. Edibles, appealing to older patients, aren’t legal yet, Wong said.

The state has determined 10 conditions that can qualify a patient for marijuana use, including HIV, cancer, terminal illnesses and chronic pain, Wong said. 

This approach leaves out patients who don’t fit these labels, leading to physicians administering cannabis under a comparable basis. For example, a patient who suffers from severe anxiety could have access to THC, by comparing their illness to PTSD, a top 10 condition.

“We do that fairly often because a patient doesn’t always fit into those categories, but they need the medication,” Wong said. 

Without FDA approval, insurance companies won’t cover medical marijuana-related expenses. Wong said patients have to pay cash when going to dispensaries. 

Wong’s practice in North Miami tries to use a sliding scale to be accommodating for those who don’t have the financial means to pay for medical marijuana.

“There’s quite a few patients out there in Florida who can’t afford to pay out of pocket for these things,” she said.

Jenna, 20-year-old University of Florida student.

After a long day of studying in the library or working on research, Jenna likes to go home, relax, and hit her THC vape pen. 

She’s one of the few in her friend group to receive a medical marijuana card from the state of Florida. After getting getting approved in January after a cannabis doctor’s visit, Jenna has visited her local dispensary once a month. She pays about $40 for THC drops and cartridges every visit.

Her mother, who received her card a few months before Jenna’s, helped her daughter research the benefits medical marijuana provides to alleviate anxiety and insomnia. 

Jenna’s method of choice? Vaporizing.

“It takes into effect quicker,” she said. “If I were to be in a stressful situation, I get my pen and it puts everything at ease.”

Despite legalization, Jenna believes a stigma still exists around medical marijuana, especially at her age. She declined to give her last name out of fear of employers looking negatively at her use.

Even though she believes medical marijuana is the future of medicine, she knows it’s an uphill battle for others to catch on.

“If you could take the money that’s used in manufacturing prescriptions for Big Pharma and put it in research towards natural methods that people have been using for years,” Jenna said. “It would solve a lot of problems in health care.”

Nikki Fried, Florida Agriculture commissioner

When the audience asked panelists on whether or not they would support a dispensary near or on a college campus, Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, looked back on her experiences at UF. 

Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Fried said her parents sat her down to talk about substances she would encounter in before she began her freshman year in 1995. 

“They said, we don’t want you to drink or smoke,” Fried said. “But if you’re going to have to do one of them, we’d rather you smoke.”

In the last two years alone, 10 cannabis dispensaries have opened near Fried’s alma mater in Gainesville. To her, the future of health care is intertwined with the future of medical marijuana.

Fried said you don’t hear violence associated with marijuana in college, but rather, more of alcohol-driven incidents. The access to a safe, controlled substance, like medical marijuana may curb some alcohol problems when students are surrounded by bars, she said.

“Obviously, we don’t want people to abuse [cannabis],” Fried said. “We want to make sure there’s an education component also.”

A need for weed? Influencers weigh in on future of cannabis in Florida

Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, senior counsel at the Cannabis Law Practice Group of law firm Greenspoon Marder Matt Ginder and medical marijuana physician Dr. Ann-Marie Wong speak at the Florida Priorities Summit Nov. 19. Photo by Jonah Hinebaugh

By Dylan Hart

University of South Florida – St. Petersburg

Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried predicted that hemp could be a $30 billion industry in Florida. But obstacles to hemp and cannabis production still stand in the way.

Fried made her prognostication Tuesday at the Florida Priorities Summit, joining lawyer Matt Ginder and Dr. Ann-Marie Wong, a physician who specializes in medical marijuana, in a discussion of the future of cannabis in the state.

Florida voters legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes in 2016. But restrictions are still in place that keep the industry from flourishing, the panelists said.

“You can break it down to issues of getting into the market,” said Ginder, senior counsel at the Cannabis Law Practice Group of law firm Greenspoon Marder. “Once you have the relevant licenses, there’s still a tremendous amount of issues operating your company.”

The cost of entering the business — from growing supply to processing facilities to retail stores — ranges from $20 to $30 million, Fried estimated.

On top of that, the competition is heavy, she said. There are already over a dozen businesses in Florida competing for a spot, and many already have connections with patients and doctors.

St. Petersburg has seven retail dispensaries, one less than a mile away from USF St. Petersburg.

Fried, who was a medical marijuana lobbyist before being elected to her position in 2018, promoted medical marijuana as a key campaign plank. She said that patient access is still limited due to fiscal concerns.

“It’s still a cash-only business,” and patients often have to “pay additionally out-of-pocket” to see a licensed physician, Fried said. “It’s a huge undertaking [for the industry], so there are no opportunities to lower the cost of medicine.”

But public opinion on dispensaries is turning around, Fried said. At first, many cities restricted them to warehouse or industrial areas. But as more have opened dispensaries — Fried compared their appearance to Starbucks, IKEA and Apple stores in terms of presentation — some strip malls have started to view them as attractions that bring foot traffic and new customers.

Regarding dispensaries near college campuses, Fried said that it was a positive to have access nearby for students, but made it clear that education was key to prevent abuse.

Although the panelists agreed that the regulations may be too strict in some areas, the state lacks the means to independently test medical pot for consistency, instead relying on the producers to self-test and report their findings. That needs to change, and requires action from the state Department of Health, Fried said.

But the panelists agreed that medical marijuana, hemp and eventually recreational pot have significant economic potential for Florida.

Fried said that the industrial hemp — used for everything from paper to packing material — is just as much of a potential boon to the economy as its medicinal or recreational byproducts.

The Department of Agriculture is “working hard” to push hemp as a new industry for the state, Fried said and that the program created by the department is intended to be a “completely open marketplace” for business owners to apply for a license. In the past, Fried has said that she wants Florida to be a leader in the country for hemp.

As for recreational marijuana, in Ginder’s view, the economic positives mean that expansion in Florida is inevitable.

“Tax it, don’t tax it too much or you push it into the black market,” Ginder said. “I think that’s the way to go. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Still, the panelists identified public apprehension surrounding cannabis.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is really fear of the unknown,” Ginder said. “I heard it a lot early on in Florida that we don’t want to look like Colorado. Colorado’s really not that bad.”

Wong said that, despite growing public support, there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding medical marijuana’s physical effects, even among medical patients. She said that only about 280,000 of Florida’s roughly 400,000 registered medical marijuana patients are active users.

Because of that, she raised concerns about limiting access to particular kinds of cannabis. She said that different patients prefer different methods: for example, patients over 55, who make up the majority of medical marijuana patients, prefer smokable cannabis because of its familiarity.

She added that cannabis is not strictly psychoactive as many people perceive, either.

“A lot of patients are able to work and go to school without getting high while at the same time preventing their symptoms,” Wong said. “That’s probably the biggest misconception — that if you use medical marijuana, you’re going to get high.”

The panel agreed that the state has a lot of work to do to ramp up production, as sufficient supply of varied types of cannabis is a major concern for the industry.

State leaders agree: Florida’s economic growth will be in tech, not agriculture or tourism

According to environment panel member and eMerge Americas President Melissa Medina, tech-related startups racked in $1.4 billion in startup funding during the first half of 2019 in Miami alone.

By Hope Dean

The Alligator / University of Florida

Florida’s fields, filled with sugarcane and cattle, make the state about $8 billion yearly. The white sand beaches and amusement parks of tourism rack in a whopping $86 billion

But some state leaders believe the technology sector, not Florida’s old lifeblood of oranges and Disney, is the key to future economic development. 

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, over 50 Florida lawmakers, businesspeople and other officials met for the second annual Florida Priorities Summit to discuss statewide issues. They spoke about everything from healthcare to medical marijuana as more than 100 people watched at the University of Miami’s Donna E. Shalala Student Center.

According to environment panel member and eMerge Americas President Melissa Medina, tech-related startups racked in $1.4 billion in startup funding during the first half of 2019 in Miami alone. That’s more than the entirety of 2018, she added. 

Statewide, the statistics are even higher. Florida ranks fourth in tech industry employment and the sector contributes about $39.3 billion to the state’s economy, according to nonprofit trade association CompTIA

“Startups provide an incredible amount of economic impact. They provide a lot of jobs in different sectors, and I think that all of our government officials need to be paying more attention to that,” Medina said. 

She suggests that the state create an Office of Entrepreneurship that reports to the governor. This office would provide incentives for small startups to root in Florida and organize statewide tech business efforts, she said. 

Richard Florida, visiting fellow at Florida International University’s Miami Urban Future Initiative, agrees that’s a good idea. The tech sector’s hotspots in major cities could be targeted by government-supported innovation. 

“You have a decentralized state portfolio [and] a Miami base, a Tampa base, an Orlando base, a Space Coast base, on and on, where the state is providing support,” he said. “But the local folks are building those clusters. I think that kind of approach would make great sense for our state.” 

But tech change isn’t just centered around software and artificial intelligence. 

Urban tech is the newest and fastest-growing sector, and it’s focused on connecting people via apps or the internet to solicit simple services. It makes up 20 percent of venture capital these days, and Uber and Airbnb are its current rulers, Florida said.  

One of urban tech’s current leaders is Florida resident and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, Florida added. He merged into Dreamit Ventures, a startup funding company specializing in urban tech, with Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment in 2017. 

Dreamit has invested in companies that are collectively worth $2 billion and is giving back to Tampa with a $3 billion, nine-year project that they call Water Street Tampa, it announced. The project will add new office spaces and housing to a nine-million-square-foot area in the city. 

More tech opportunities could be found in other unexpected places. When recently visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Florida said that Disney, not Google or Apple, is widely considered the most innovative company in the world by researchers. 

“It’s not just about software. Try building those new ride technologies. Try dealing with the civil engineering and city building technology. We have real technology leaders in our state, sometimes that we don’t think of in that way,” Florida said.

Education advocates: Ensure programs ready students for 21st-century technologies

University of Miami President Julio Frenk and Tracy Wilson Mourning attend the Florida Priorities Summit on Monday, Nov. 18, at UM. Photo by Valentina Palm

By Valentina Palm

PantherNOW / Florida International University

Tracy Wilson Mourning says her family left South Florida when she was 6 because of lack of access to good schools. Twenty years later, she returned to raise her daughter with former Miami Heat player Alonzo Mourning — and advocate for education in underprivileged communities.

This week, Wilson Mourning participated in the Miami Herald’s Florida Priorities Summit, held Nov. 18 and 19 at University of Miami to improve the state’s education system.

“Since I was a little girl, my mother would tell me ‘If they can keep you uneducated, they can control you’ and that is what I want to teach our kids,” Wilson Mourning said at the summit. 

Wilson Mourning founded the nonprofit Honey Shine Inc. in 2002 to give kids professional opportunities she never had access to as a child. 

She was one of the 50 influential Floridians at the summit working to identify problems and solutions to the state’s most pressing issues on housing, education, transportation, environment and healthcare. 

Wilson Mourning worked in the group addressing access to education, affordability and how to ensure it is relevant for the technology-driven 21st century. Group members wrote a solutions and proposals report for the state legislature.

University of Miami President Julio Frenk, another summit participant, said he  believes  Florida’s biggest challenge is also a national issue: education accessibility. He cited a study done by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program that found 50,000 community-college students nationwide who qualified for four-year college programs didn’t enroll.

“Students are not enrolling because they feel they are not going to be admitted or not able to afford it,” Frenk said. “That is terrible because those are students that could succeed. They have the grades.”

Frenk believes strengthening academic and financial advising networks for community college students is necessary to ensure they continue their educations.

“Not everyone needs to go to a four-year college but those students who can, should go,” he said.

In terms of affordability, Frenk believes “free college for all” and expunging student debt are regressive proposals, and that need-based scholarships and an earning-based debt repayment method are viable solutions.

Frenk says “free college for all” would disproportionately benefit people who can afford to pay and that they are the ones who sustain educational institutions. 

“Lack of money should never be the reason someone doesn’t go to school,” Frenk said. “We should meet students financial needs in the gap that is the amount remaining between the cost of education and how much the student can afford so they don’t carry debt until they die.”

An earnings-based repayment debt method would allow payments to increase at the same rate as an alumni’s salary. It also establishes a maximum interest percentage so the remainder is absorbed by the state, according to Frenk.

“That way we encourage students to pay a sustainable debt repair that does not interfere with other life goals like buying a house or starting a family,” he said.

From left, Martha D. Saunders, president of Florida Gulf Coast University; Leonore P. Rodicio, Miami Dade College provost; Saif Y. Ishoof, Florida International University vice president of engagement; Elaine Liftin, president of the Council Educational Change; Tracy Wilson Mourning, founder of Honey Bees Inc.; and Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright attend the Florida Priorities Summit Monday, Nov. 18, at University of Miami. Photo by Valentina Palm

Wilson Mourning believes Florida universities need to create a college culture in underprivileged communities that provides students with academic advisement and bridges the divide among children of families from different social groups.

She said partnerships between colleges and universities with community organizations, such as her nonprofit, would give students more access to information and opportunities. 

“Getting information out to them is necessary because some students have no idea [about college] and they don’t want to go because they think they don’t belong,” Wilson Mourning said.

She also believes diversifying the teaching workforce is necessary for the ever-growing diverse communities in Florida.

“Students need to see themselves in their teachers,” she said. “For my kids, throughout their academic career the only people that looked like them were conserjería (janitors) and people working in the cafeteria. Nobody looked like their mom or dad.”

Elaine Liftin, president of the Council for Educational Change, believes education advocates and teachers must work with businesses in the public and private sector to prepare students for careers relevant throughout the 21st century.

“Educators need the business community so they know what is out there for students and how they can get there,” Liftin said. “Corporations can hire a group of students and help pay for their education, that is a good start for leaders in business to invest in education and grow their enterprises.”

Businesses should receive public and private incentives to offer students paid internships, which would ensure the enter the workforce before graduation, said Saif Y. Ishoof, Florida International University’s engagement vice president.

“That way there is no lack of dignity by working in what you don’t want and you can afford to do an internship,” Ishoof said.

Liftin believes the issue with college enrollment starts in K-12 education, where school advisors don’t provide options or plans for students to continue into higher education after high school graduation.

“Teachers are not aware of the skills students need to get to college,” she said.

For Wilson Mourning , the future of Florida’s education system depends on teaching children the value and power of going to school, and making sure the state provides education funding.

“I would like every kid to have the opportunity to develop a love for learning about their interests, who they are and where they came from,” said Wilson Mourning.

Experts: Fixing Florida’s affordable-housing crisis involves fixing legislation

Annie Lord, director of Miami Homes for All, on Monday at the Florida Priorities Summit at University of Miami. Photo by Gerard Albert III

By Gerard Albert III

PantherNOW / Florida International University

More and more people are coming to Florida and the state is facing a problem: where to put them.

Activists and policy makers met at the University of Miami this week for the second-annual Florida Priorities Summit produced by the Miami Herald. They came up with solutions to some of the biggest issues facing the state, including the lack of affordable housing.  

The state is ranked first in renters who are severely cost burdened. Eighty percent spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent,  according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

“When you look at where the critical need is, it happens to be in rental housing,” said Annie Lord, director of Miami Homes for All.

Miami is a renter-majority market. More than a third of renters spend more than 30 percent of their paychecks on rent, according to a recent study by the Florida International University Metropolitan Center.

The study also found that while the amount of people renting in Miami went up by 33 percent, the amount of homeowners decreased 17 percent, leaving the percentage of people who owned homes at 30 percent — half of the national average.

The issue is two-fold: People aren’t buying houses anymore and renting is becoming too expensive. Millennials in particular are buying fewer homes following a national decline in home-ownership. Also contributing to the decline in housing is young people living with their parents.

And while developers continue to build throughout South and Central Florida, almost none of new housing units are considered affordable.

Faced with a multi-faceted problem, the summit group, consisting of influential lawyers and activists, came up with several legislative suggestions.

These included utilizing the William F. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act fund — a trust administered by the state intended to grow affordable housing. Instead, millions of dollars get moved to the state’s general fund by legislators.

“Since around 2003, the funds have been routinely raided by Tallahassee lawmakers for other uses like hurricane recovery and general funding,” the group report said.

In 2017, Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas reported that the amount  swept from the Sadowski fund added up to $1.3 billion. 

Earlier this year Florida legislators filed a bill to try and return some of the almost $2 billion taken from the fund. Miami Rep. Kionne McGhee filed bill in the state House requiring other state agencies justify why or how they deserved money transferred from the housing fund. If the agencies failed to show intended purpose, they would be forced to repay it within five years.

The bill died in May, but showed some legislators are trying to add accountability to the budget.

The group also recommended subsidies for workforce housing, incentives for developers to build more affordable housing or using public land to sell or lease to developers who commit to building it.

Another obstacle is a bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law this summer, which prevents local governments from requiring developers include affordable housing in their projects unless they receive compensation from the government.

The group thinks the bill needs to be amended.

“Strike language requiring affordability incentives to ‘fully offset’ the cost of affordability,” their report said.

Fueling the housing problem is the job market. Service and hospitality jobs are among the most popular in the state. Most of these workers rent and are cost-burdened. Miami’s low starting salaries and high rent costs also contribute to the problem for working-class families.

“But our teachers, nurses or other healthcare professionals, firefighters, police officers, government workers … either there isn’t sufficient housing for them, or there isn’t sufficient housing for them that they can afford,” Lord said.

Miami ranks first in housing costs for people of moderate incomes. Orlando, which has more land to develop than South Florida, was tied with Las Vegas as the city with the greatest shortage of rentals for low-income tenants, according to a 2016 National Low Income Housing Coalition report. 

“If those businesses are getting starved of their workforce then that’s a problem,” said Dave Wilson, senior editor at the Miami Herald.

Growing populations lead to growing problems: Florida’s public transit issue

By Ana Escalante

The Alligator / University of Florida

Eddy Arriola was tired of sitting in Miami morning traffic on his commute from Coral Gables to Apollo Bank in Brickell— so he now walks to the University of Miami station on Miami-Dade County’s Metrorail.

Arriola said that lack of funding and urban planning are contributing to the growing problem that plagues mass-transit: the focus on fixing the now, rather than planning for the future.

Florida influencers Eddy Arriola, Margaret Lezcano, Ram Kancharla and Marie Woodson came together to tackle public transits’ inefficiency problem during the first day of the Florida Priorities Summit. Photo by Ana Escalante

At the second-annual Florida Priorities Summit — a panel hosted by the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and Bradenton Herald — 50 influential Floridians discussed statewide issues, including transportation. Solutions brainstormed at the summit will be presented to the Florida Legislature when session resumes in January.

Arriola said the “innovative” Metrorail provides a cheaper, cleaner way to get to his job. Since hopping on the train, he’s persuaded the rest of his employees to follow suit.

“Big, expensive roads take a long time to build and they may not address the issues down the line,” Arriola said. 

Arriola, Margaret Lezcano, Ram Kancharla and Marie Woodson came together Monday to tackle public transits’ inefficiency problem in a round-table discussion during the first day of the two-day summit at University of Miami.

Although transportation includes multi-modal systems including buses, trains, and ships, the four influencers brainstormed solutions aimed at the bigger picture: They want to raise awareness of the benefits of public transportation and make sure Florida keeps its growing population in mind when building these systems.

Marie Woodson, a retired Miami-Dade public administrator, believes inclusive education programs created in English, Spanish and Creole will inform people about the benefits of using mass transportation like buses and trains.

Awareness is one of the points on her platform during her current run for a House District 101 seat. 

“We need to make it more user friendly, as well as cost effective,” Woodson said. “If they don’t see the benefits of it, they won’t use it.”

A growing population in urban centers like South Florida is leading to an increased need for urban planning when it comes to creating transportation systems, Woodson said. Census data shows Miami-Dade County grew by about 10.5 percent.

Florida’s legislature should focus on plans that keep future populations in mind, she said, rather than quick, cheaper short-term solutions. 

“If we don’t come up with solutions, we’re leaving problems for young people,” she said. 

Exponential population growth isn’t just a problem for large-scale urban areas though. Growing demographics in college towns, like Gainesville, where the University of Florida is located, may present a challenge for local transportation services.

Since 2010, Gainesville’s population grew 7.7 percent and Alachua County grew by 9.1 percent, according to Census data. The local bus service, Regional Transit System, or RTS, provides service throughout the city. 

RTS buses calculate the number of passengers that get on and off at every stop, Shelby Taylor, Gainesville’s city communications director, wrote in an email. This data then drives the implementation of additional routes around the city due to demand. 

About half the expanded routes in Gainesville service students in and around UF and nearby Santa Fe College, based on city’s transit website.

Although the needs of Miami-Dade may be different from the needs of Gainesville, Eddy Arriola emphasized that public transportation’s inefficiency problem is a statewide one. 

“A consistent take-away is that in order for the state to advance, we really need to think of ourselves as a state that works together,” he said. “We’re not just Tampa, we’re not just Gainesville, we’re a unified community.”