Will Trump be good for South Florida’s economy?

By Nicolas Nehamas and Jane Woolridge

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An annual gathering of South Florida business leaders focused on an economic wild card that few had predicted: President Donald Trump.

The new president’s policies on trade, finance, immigration and healthcare could have a greater impact — positive and negative — on South Florida than on other regions less closely tied to foreign markets, noted Thursday’s speakers.

But Tony Villamil, an economist and former official in the George W. Bush administration, summed up the attitude of many of the 275 attendees at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 South Florida Economic Summit.

Calma!” he urged. “Take it easy. Let’s see what happens.”

Trump’s potential impact on South Florida’s economy came up at several panels held during the event at Jungle Island on Thursday.

For instance, the president’s commitment to lower taxes could boost business and investment, said Jeffrey DiModica, president and managing director of Starwood Property Trust.

But a trade war with China could hurt PortMiami and imperil budding efforts to attract more Chinese real-estate investment, others said. China was the port’s biggest international trading partner between January and November 2016, according to trade tracker WorldCity.

“A trade war would be detrimental not just to U.S. trading partners but to U.S. companies themselves,” said Anthony Mak, director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

A showdown over trade and who will pay for a border wall with Mexico is also leading to strained relations with a major U.S. economic partner. On Thursday morning, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a planned visit to Washington, D.C. Later in the day, a White House spokesman said the U.S. would institute a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports.

“If we turn protectionist with [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and other trade agreements, that would have a very detrimental effect on our economy in Florida because we are a global trade and global investment center,” Villamil said.

Immigration fight

On immigration, Trump has said so-called “sanctuary” communities will lose federal funding. On Thursday afternoon, after the meeting concluded, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered local jails to comply with federal detention requests.

Mike Valdes-Fauli, who runs Hispanic-oriented marketing firm Pinta, said Miami’s cultural integration and diversity should serve as a model for other cities.

“We’ve had a lot of difficulty with immigrants being a punching bag over the last two years,” he said. “And that has led to a branding issue for the U.S. Hispanic market. … Our brand was against the ropes with Donald Trump creating a vitriolic rancor [against] the Hispanic immigrant community.”

One in two Miami-Dade residents are foreign-born.

Other speakers touched on themes that were less political and more commonly heard in Miami business circles.

“Everything is open for disruption,” said Matt Haggman, Miami program director for the Knight Foundation. He called on civic leaders to help small companies scale up. Growing small businesses into major companies is a weakness for Miami, despite its entrepreneurial business climate. And he also noted the threat that automation could pose to established industries like trucking and heavy machine operating.

Jacques Hart, CEO of public-relations firm Roar Media, pointed out the growing chasm between incomes and home prices in South Florida.

“That gap creates a great deal of challenge for millennial [workers],” he said.

And Arden Karson, senior managing director of commercial realty firm CBRE, noted changing habits from her recent past as a real estate developer with Related. When the company first designed the Brickell Heights condo a few years ago, buyers clamored for a parking space for every bedroom. But as the building neared completion late last year, developers found themselves with excess parking spaces as increasing numbers of residents turn to ride-sharing services and mass transit.

That, said Miami-Dade transportation director Alice Bravo, is the goal.

“Eventually, we want to make this a car-optional community,” she said. Already the county has increased MetroRail service on weekends, synchronized traffic lights in real time to alleviate congestion, and improved the county’s transportation app to include a pay system. Additional bus corridors are being developed. And eventually auto-driven vehicles might circulate through neighborhoods to deliver riders to transit stations.

Penny Shaffer, market president for Florida Blue, helped close out the event with a discussion of the Affordable Care Act. She said the complex legislation known as Obamacare deserved praise for bringing insurance to an estimated 20 million people, but must be simplified, as Trump and his Congressional allies have promised to do.

She also called on Miami’s business community to support local hospitals and ensure 850,000 uninsured Floridians caught in the Medicaid gap receive health coverage.

“We sat here silently,” Shaffer said. “We’ve got to come together and be more engaged as a community.”