A whirlwind few weeks where many outsiders descended on Florida has come to an end. The International Champions Cup, a soccer tournament featuring eight of the biggest European clubs culminated on Saturday with El Clasico Miami. The event which was sponsored by among other entities, Visit Orlando brought fans and journalists from across the world to the Sunshine State. The past few weeks with this event ongoing was a whirlwind for those who cover and work in the sport in this state but importantly gave some real perspective on what’s happened and what might be ahead for our state. I will admit much of this piece is based on anecdotal evidence but also on perspectives and feelings that have dominated thoughts about the state’s decline for the last several years.
Once upon a time, a Florida getaway was a dream for outsiders- a state that had it all and captured the imagination of Americans, Europeans, and those from all corners of the globe. But today, Florida’s cities are congested, infrastructure is strained, public transit is lacking, education is poor, climate change is rapidly encroaching on the state among other things.
While many of Florida’s problems are self-inflicted some are just the result of bad luck. For example, Florida grew explosively in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, a time when cities were in perennial decline throughout the country. Florida developed its urban areas as sprawling suburban and exurban areas never truly developing the character or amenities of big city life anywhere in the state with highly-arguable exception of Miami. In an era where urban areas and city life are becoming attractive again to younger professionals and global elites who 20 or 40 years ago would have bought suburban homes instead, outside of Miami, Florida’s cities have very little appeal to types of people the state needs to attract. Cultural institutions and park space remain small or largely non-existent compared to similar sized urban areas outside this state. The conversations I have with elites indicate almost a divisiveness bordering on condescension about what they see in Florida’s other cities and downtown areas. This is a bi-product of years of suburban and exurban growth and a desire among Florida’s policymakers and never residents to keep taxes low. Therefore, the trappings of urban life including mass transit, parks, high-end museums and good central city infrastructure that attract younger people and more professionals to an area are severely lacking outside of Miami.
But many of Florida’s less attractive features are self-inflicted. To the type of professional people who previously would embrace a move to our state, things in 2017 look a lot bleaker than in 1997 or 1977. The lack of higher-income professional jobs created by corporate relocations to the state or unwillingness to embrace the types of things that would bring higher-wage earning professionals to the state like High Speed Rail has impacted people’s impressions of the state. As Climate Change threatens our coastline and wealth gravitates to resort destinations in other parts of the world, Florida faces a battle to convince many higher-spending tourists or those looking to buy second and third homes that its beaches remain the world’s envy. Quite frankly, we’re now losing that battle, even to the point Floridians themselves go and vacation in the Caribbean or on Mediterranean beaches instead of spending that money at what were once seen as comparable or superior destinations here at home. Meanwhile, the state has failed to really capture as much ecotourism as it should despite having some of the most unique and beautiful habitats in the western hemisphere. Instead, when those habitats such as Indian River Lagoon or St Lucie Estuary are threatened, the state’s leadership class is often caught off-guard and more interested in protecting political contributors who might have played a role in the problems than actually solving anything.
Florida’s lack of a vibrant younger professional class, a bi-product of neglecting higher education and experimenting with K-12 schools over the last two decades as well as the failed attempts of the legislature and other political leaders to bring as many corporate relocation to the state despite constantly giving tax incentives to companies. Meanwhile “isn’t Florida sinking into the sea” is a refrain I hear repeated far too often – this coincides with a generation of failed leadership exemplified by Governor Rick Scott who won’t even acknowledge that Climate Change and Sea Level Rise is a thing and it impacts Florida more profoundly than other places.
My conversations in the last few weeks have revealed to me so many of the types of younger professional, urbane people who once would have flocked to Florida simply don’t see it as a destination anymore and many if not given an occasion to visit, like the International Champions Cup, simply vacation elsewhere. As advocates for this state it is something we must all work with our policymakers, community and business leaders to help reverse.