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Friends In Crowded Places: How A New Group Hopes To Change Transportation, Education Policies

Jessica Bakeman
Christine Barney is the leader of a new umbrella group that seeks to improve state and federal funding for things like schools and transportation projects in South Florida.

Many of South Florida's biggest problems aren't confined by county borders — sea-level rise, for example, is one of them.

That’s why the chambers of commerce for Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Palm Beaches decided to get together. They recently formed one big umbrella group to advocate for state and federal policies that will help businesses across all three counties.

The new South Florida Business Council will focus on transportation, educational quality, water management, affordable housing and tourism.

For example, the group is pushing for changes to eligibility requirements for federal Pell grants, which are financial aid awards that help low-income students go to college. Business leaders want to lower the minimum number of hours students must study in order to receive Pell grants, so they are able to use them for short-term workforce training programs. The group also wants Pell grants to cover summer courses, which they currently do not.

WLRN recently spoke with Christine Barney, chair of the new South Florida Business Council and C.E.O. of rbb Communications, based in Coral Gables. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:

WLRN: Why form this new group?

BARNEY: As times have changed, we need to address issues regionally. Other markets are getting more, because they're able to work as a region. When you look at Orlando, when you look at the Tampa Bay partnership, even in Houston, other places — there are several models that show that when you work as a region, you have more impact, not only locally but federally.

And, in fact, recently, as we saw with the Amazon headquarters bid, we bid as a region, and we made it almost all the way to the top, because of the strength of working together rather than separately.

 You are a business leader yourself — C.E.O. of rbb Communications. What's the biggest South Florida challenge that your company is facing right now?

The biggest challenge … is transportation and mobility. When I'm looking to arrange client meetings and events — I mean, how many times have you heard about a meeting that's going to be at five o'clock downtown? There are a lot of times when people will just say, “I'm not going to brave the traffic to go there.” So it affects the way you plan. It affects the way you can engage with your community.

It affects people you can hire, because, you know, more and more, people don't want to have those long commutes. And that's why we've seen such a resurgence in our downtowns. Younger people want to live in the cities, so that they can walk to their workplace.

As for the transportation and mobility issues, what are you hoping to change about that, or how are you going to try to change that?

The three heads of transportation in each of the counties [Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach] were pulled together for a meeting with us so that we could ask them collectively: What is it that the business community can do to help you achieve the transportation goals that you have?

They want our support in going for a federal grant program that would allow dollars to come directly to the counties, instead of having it go through the state. If you can get grants direct from the federal government to the counties, that reduces the time that's required to make some of these things come to life. If grants have to go through the state, and then from the state level down to the county, that adds time, it adds administrative process, and sometimes it reduces the dollars.

And there are several rules about a lot of the grants that come from the state, in terms of what you can use them on. You know, right now there's a lot of money for resurfacing [paving] roads. Our needs in South Florida are less about resurfacing roads, as they may be in other rural parts of the state, and more about alternative modes of transportation, like adding buses and adding rapid bus lanes. So we want more flexibility.

 I understand education is one of the top issues you guys are going to look at. What's the connection between schools and businesses?

Sure. Education is the building block of economic development. Companies move here and stay here because they know that they have access to a quality workforce, and they know that their employees are going to be able to feel good about the K through 12 education system.

So what needs to change in South Florida schools and colleges to help businesses here?

There are several injustices, so to speak, in the education system. One of them, for example, is the way funding is done at the state level. We feel very strongly that all three counties are donors to the budget for the state of Florida, and we don't get back the dollars that we deserve or need. One of the things that we're working on is advocating for a more fair distribution of dollars.

Jessica Bakeman is senior editor for news at WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Previously, Bakeman served as WLRN's education reporter for four years. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.