Face to Face: A Conversation with Ralph Marrinson

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The chair of the South Florida Regional Business Alliance talks about the organization's mission and the concerns facing the region.

Q. Mr. Marrinson, you're the chairman of the South Florida Regional Business Alliance. What is the RBA, and what is its mission?

A. The RBA came about as a result of the Broward Workshop, the Economic Council of the Palm Beaches and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce sitting down -- three similar business-type organizations -- to look at the long-range issues affecting the area. And we quickly learned that we were a megalopolis. And by definition, a megalopolis means a region composed of several large cities and their suburbs, in sufficiently close proximity to be considered a single urban complex.

Well, [Miami-]Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and, frankly, Martin and Monroe [counties], fall into that. Our people, our goods and services flow freely. We don't know when we cross these legal borders or boundaries, because we just don't know where they're at, and the average John Q., or the average visitor, tourist or whatever, or delivery person, knows that they've got to go from Point A to Point B. So we have created, ourselves, a lot of political borders that really don't exist, except for whatever reason they were created for.

So, by coming together, we also recognize that in strength there's numbers, or in numbers there's strength, whichever way you want to work it. So that if we were going to try to make things happen, working together would make it happen faster, and more efficiently. So we developed our mission statement, and that was to have an organization that could work together. None of us are in elected positions, nor do we have any interest in being in elected positions. And we find it easier to function that way, in that we don't have that territorial view. We have more of a statesperson's view, a broader view.

In the beginning, we said that there were certain items that we needed to look at and some that we just couldn't take on. We couldn't be all things to all people, and we shouldn't even attempt to be all things to all people. What we want to do is look at those issues that we can have an impact, such as transportation, such as bringing about coordination of our economic development agencies to bring about what we call net economic growth. Growth is not moving a business from one county to the other, or one section of the megalopolis. Net economic growth is bringing a new industry to the area.

Q. We can't really talk about the Regional Business Alliance without talking about South Florida regionalism as a concept. What is regionalism, and why is it so important, especially to the business community?

A. When we first sat down, we asked ourselves that. What is regionalism? Well, regionalism is the megalopolis. The megalopolis says it all Now the feds have recognized it, and they've designated us with a single MSA [metropolitan statistical area], which now catapults us into

Q. Sixth-largest in the country, I believe.

A. Sixth-largest, could even become the fifth-largest in the country. Now, one of the interesting things is that we're now competing on a global basis. We're not competing with each other, we're competing with the major markets with the Hong Kongs, with the Londons, with the major economic centers of the world. And we will continue, but we need to be in a position to attract industry, and to have the quality of life in this megalopolis that makes it make sense.

There is no sense sitting on a road all day long, wasting time, energy. That's silly, and we have an opportunity to fix it, and we're going to do everything we can to fix it.

Q. Speaking of foreign competition, what is the RBA's position on free trade, and in particular the Free Trade Area of the Americas?

A. We're very much in favor of it. We have gone on record as supporting it. We're very much in favor of Scripps coming down here; we think that's exciting. Those two are perfect examples of net economic growth. To move somebody from [Miami-]Dade to Palm Beach County wouldn't have even hit the radar screen, I don't care what size it was. But to bring in a fresh new crop.

Q. The RBA successfully pushed for legislation reconstituting Tri-Rail as the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. Why was that important to the business community?

A. Someone's got to be in charge. In order to have something become accomplished, there needs to be a degree of organization, and that is, somebody's in charge And we say this in everything. Where's the focal point? In everything we deal with, we will be focusing in that direction. We have discovered that the old Tri-Rail organization, that we had redesignated, is loaded with talent. These are really professionals. I didn't know a single one of them before, but I've gained the utmost respect. When we've called meetings, the players, the enthusiasm for regionalism is there. Two years ago, I don't think that would have been the case.

Q. Now that the RTA is a reality, does the RBA have any role to play in what happens next?

A. We're working with the RTA as well as the MPOs [metropolitan planning organizations] and everybody to bring the players together. If we systematize the components, and get people communicating and working together, then you're going to solve some problems. If you stay fragmented, and the left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing, it's crazy.

Q. Do you think there should be a merger of the three South Florida MPOs? I gather that you at least believe there should be a regionalized consolidation of their planning, but should there be an actual merger into one MPO for South Florida?

A. That's a decision that will be made by others. But I do believe that we need coordination of the MPOs, because that is the vehicle of funding, for all federal [transportation] funding. We need to make sure that everybody shares the same vision, because when you start going out 10, 15, 20 years and beyond, you'd better have a vision. And you'd better have developed some consensus Quality of life is what it's about. How do we improve the quality of life?

Q. Education is another issue in which the RBA has taken a strong interest, and I know the level of state funding is one of your concerns. Are there any other educational concerns that the RBA has, or is it mainly a funding issue?

A. Well, (A), it's obviously funding, but (B), we're beginning to look at where are some of the voids in the system. What don't we have in our educational arsenal that we should have in the arsenal? There's no veterinarian school.

Q. Do we need one?

A. I don't know. There's no da-da-da-da-da-da -- and there's a lot of specialties. We need to have an educated and prepared workforce. We need to identify those voids so that we have a prepared workforce.

Q. Florida is known as a low-tax state, and that's generally seen as a plus in the business sector, obviously, but do you think Florida is collecting enough in taxes? Is the tax structure fair and adequate to the state's needs?

A. The first thing I would start with is, from a businessman's point of view, have we really re-engineered government to be efficient and effective? Before you start saying we need more money, let's take a look at what we're spending first, and is it the most cost-effective way to operate? My guess is that answer's pretty easy. Now having said that, you might want to say, OK, not ask that question, and say, well, we have to raise taxes, or we have to raise more money. You may have done it by just the re-engineering. Wouldn't that be interesting?

Q. What's the best way to achieve that re-engineering?

A. Zero-based budgeting. Just go back to basics.

Q. Affordable housing is another of the RBA's priority issues. What should the region be doing to create more affordable housing, and what role can the RBA play?

A. I think that the developers in our community are addressing this now. There's more and more coming in. The biggest question is, what is `affordable'? How do you define `affordable'? And I don't think that the community has really developed that. There's been some discussion of rent subsidies and that. We really haven't gotten into that yet. It's an area that I think needs to be looked at, though.

Q. Is `workforce housing' a better way to put it, to say that it would be affordable to the workforce?

A. That is exactly right. In fact, we have said in the RBA that we're not looking at `affordable,' because no one knows what that means, but `workforce,' and that simply means make sure there's adequate housing within the reach of the labor market to provide the labor that's necessary to run the economic engines.

Q. Growth management has become a major issue in South Florida. Where does the RBA stand on that? Is there too much growth, not enough, just the right amount?

A. I don't know how you measure it, and I don't know that there is a measure. But one thing we know for certain: the more snow we have up North, whether we like it or not, our Northern brothers and sisters are coming down. And think about the number of Baby Boomers that are leaving the job market that will be relocating down here. You certainly need to plan for it, recognize that it's going to happen, and not bury your head in the sand that it's not going to happen. It's going to happen, and we don't have any control over it.

Q. What other issues are on the RBA's radar screen these days?

A. Cultural arts is one. We're very concerned that with some of the issues occurring in cultural arts funding, we need to ensure that there's a good cultural arts base in our community. It's part of the quality of life.

Q. The trend has been the other way, with the Florida Philharmonic closing down and museums having problems.

A. But I think as we come out of this economic downturn, this cycle that we've just been in, that people will turn more toward those institutions and support them.

Q. What are the major challenges facing South Florida's business community over the next decade?

A. Labor. Availability of labor. We will be out of labor. Remember, as the Baby Boomers leave the work marketplace, we're going to go from 76 percent of the population providing goods and services down to 54. That means we're going to need the importation of more Third World labor to provide the goods and services for our community. If you believe in Megatrends, [John] Nesbitt's book, he said we are going to be out of the manufacturing arena and into the service arena. And that seems to be where we're going. So we're going to have to plan for it. We know that people are living longer, and we need to deal with a lot of issues there.

Q. How can we best increase the number of imported workers while at the same time guarding our borders and making sure immigration doesn't get out of control?

A. On a need basis, if there are some countries that have some type of labor that we need with certain skill levels. This is going to be very difficult to manage. Obviously it becomes emotional, it becomes political, it becomes legal. But all of a sudden, these things will all come into focus when the need is there.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers, either on your own behalf or on behalf of the RBA?

A. Just that, think about this place from a positive point of view. Let's get the thunderstorm off the people's heads. This is a great place to live. Let's continue to make it a great place to live, and let's not shoot at each other unnecessarily and ridiculously. Let's work together to make this a better community -- even better than it is today.

BACKGROUND

Ralph A. Marrinson is chairman of the South Florida Regional Business Alliance, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan group established in 2002 to overcome regional differences and encourage business leaders in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to work together to solve problems common to all of South Florida. He is president and chief executive officer of the Marrinson Group of nursing homes and senior care residences. He is a fellow of the American College of Health Care Administrators and an honorary trustee of the Broward Community College Foundation. He has devoted himself to a long list of professional and civic activities, and was named Fort Lauderdale's Distinguished Citizen of the Year in 2000. He won the Broward Committee of 100 Community Leader of the Year award in 1988, and he was the Broward County recipient of the News/Sun-Sentinel's Excalibur Award as Business Leader of the Year for 1987.

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