In the world of cities, Miami is more mistress than wife. She’s hot, sometimes flashy, often exotic and great for trade and travel, but not likely where you’d settle down for the long haul.
That was one of many insights from urban geographer Jan Nijman at WorldCity’s CEO Club on Feb. 4, a meeting where just two of nearly two dozen attendees said they’d lived in Miami for 30 years or more.
Nijman characterized Miami as a city marked by “extreme transience,” of people coming and going but not setting down roots. The Cubans who came in the 1960s after the Castro revolution, for example, aimed to return to their Caribbean island. And many New Yorkers in retirement or South Americans in luxury condos still keep their hearts and minds close to their former homes and families elsewhere.
Miami developed as an international business hub for Latin America largely by accident, Nijman said. The Cubans who arrived post-Castro had the language and cultural skills that attracted Latin American business. Cocaine traffic in the 1980s brought mega-bucks to area banks. And geography helped, he said.
But unlike Ireland’s Dublin, where town fathers planned to become a hub for business with Europe, Miami evolved as a regional business hub partly by default — because of political and social instability n Latin America: dictators, drugs and crime. Multinational companies set up offices in Miami as “an oasis of peace” to run business in the Latin region. And therein lies a rub, said Nijman.
“If Miami’s rise was an accident, then it becomes very precarious how you hold it in place,” he said. If Latin America becomes politically and socially stable over time, as Brazil is becoming, “you lose the advantage” of Miami as a safe haven, and companies could move their offices elsewhere, said Nijman.
So, what should Miami do to keep its edge as a Latin American business hub?, asked Steve Bartley, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search.
First, execute well: Keep the airports and seaports running smoothly, with easy entry and exit for passengers and goods. And also, press local, state and federal governments to remove hurdles to international business, said Nijman, who runs the urban studies program at the University of Miami.
Miami also needs to look to the next stage in its development, as Latin America works more directly with Asia and Europe and skips Miami as a middleman. Miami’s future lies beyond trading factory or farm goods across borders and instead in the realm of art, fashion, TV production and creative industries, said Ruben Rotulo, president of consulting firm Robles Advisors.
“The transformation that has to take place is to become a creative city,” Rotulo said.
But Miami faces many hurdles to evolve as a creative city. For one, there’s deep inequality among residents that affects everything from customer service to public school education, Nijman said.
Miami boasts the richest place in the United States by income, exclusive Fisher Island. Yet it ranks as the poorest city of its size nationwide, with such areas as Liberty City where per-capita income runs about $10,000 a year. That poverty and polarization contribute to high rates of crime, Nijman said.
Social divides and successive waves of immigrants, many unfamiliar with U.S. language and culture and from families that place low value on education, hurt the quality of public schools in Miami, which Nijman described as “shameful.” For a city to attract and build a top-notch workforce, it needs solid education and a safe environment for all — not just people who can afford it, Nijman said.
But Miami is advancing on some key fronts. It’s growing as a hub for European companies doing business across the Americas, and it’s becoming a health center, attracting international patients, said Jorge Hurtado, Latin America director for real-estate company Aguirre Newman.
Still, many people don’t see Miami as a permanent home worth nurturing long-term. Miami native David Suarez, managing director for strategy and branding at marketing company (add)ventures, said most of his classmates no longer live in the area. That’s partly because “nothing was re-invested in Miami for so long. Things are taken, but not given,” Suarez said. “To grow roots, you need infrastructure.”
Many multinational executives also spend more time traveling or engaging with groups overseas than they do working with such local groups as the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, participants added. That sometimes limits the understanding of local, state and national leaders about the importance of Latin American markets for Florida and the need to keep international business flowing.
“Where you can get that message on the agenda is to say China is taking over South America,” said Nijman, pointing to China’s fast-rising purchases and investments in metals and farm products in Brazil, Chile, Peru and other South American nations. “That will get attention in Washington, D.C.”
Nijman recently published a book, “Miami: Mistress of the Americas,” where he details the city’s history, ascent and challenges. Among the top concerns longer-term for the Netherlands-born researcher: “We all flirt with Miami for 10 or 20 years and then, we go home.”
The CEO Club is one of seven event series organized by WorldCity to bring together executives on international business topics. The Club is sponsored by law firm Becker & Poliakoff and the University of Miami School of Business Administration. The next meeting is set for March 4.