By Ben Wolford, Sun Sentinel
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DELRAY BEACH — In the next few decades, Southeast Florida should offer free public wireless Internet, effortless transit and a wellspring of jobs, according to about 400 policymakers who laid out their vision Wednesday at a summit to bridge the region’s economies.
Some of their ideas were pragmatic, such as affordable housing incentives. But others were lofty, including an elevated grid of air-conditioned tubes for bicyclists.
“Maybe it’s not so far-fetched at all,” said Gary Rogers, executive director of the Lauderdale Lakes Community Redevelopment Agency.
The elected officials, urban planners and entrepreneurs, from Indian River County to Key West, entertained utopian dreams but also confronted the area’s challenges: aging, sea level rise and a debilitating cycle of boom and bust.
he summit is part of a project known as Seven50 — seven counties, 50 years — funded by a $4.25 million federal grant. Organizers say they’re building a plan for a 315-mile-long hodgepodge of local governments that don’t always work together.
The area’s 121 municipalities scrap for grants and new businesses, trying to one-up their neighbors. South Florida has four regional workforce boards, five seaport master plans and four airport master plans, according to Cambridge Systematics, a transportation consulting firm.
The scattershot development is the biggest obstacle to the goals of Seven50, said many attendees at the summit in Delray Beach.
“You get the fiefdom effect,” said Vernon A. Pickup-Crawford, who lobbies for the Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast public school districts.
He said previous rallies to unite the region have flared and smoldered.
This one has federal financial backing, and organizers say other U.S. metropolises are watching. Several times they drew comparisons to such historical events as Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that first tied the region. One urban planner likened their exercise to great feats of design, including the municipal grid of Washington, D.C.
“Public and private parties are going to be spending money in the next 50 years, whether we’re here or not,” said James F. Murley, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, based in Hollywood. “We lack that agreed-upon direction.”
It’s no surprise considering its diversity, many said. Northern retirees preceded Latin American immigrants and Cuban exiles. In the next 50 years, Asian immigrants will outpace those from Latin America and the Caribbean, said Bob Burchell, a Rutgers University researcher.
“We had an amazing, game-changing immigration story in South Florida,” said Victor B. Dover, an urban planner with Dover, Kohl and Partners of Coral Gables.
And they’re all getting older, making the single-family homes they once enjoyed untenable. Human frailty will lead to a need for urban, affordable housing near public transit, said members of a task group focused on development.
To lure young professionals, developers will have to build a hip, urban landscape, east to west public transportation and an abundance of transit stops. These kinds of infrastructure improvements, in tandem with industrial diversity and workforce training, will stabilize the boom-bust cycle here, attendees said.
Some worry that population centers around Broward and Miami-Dade County will suck up financing and leave the Keys, the Treasure Coast and the rural west forgotten. At the same time, many fear exurban sprawl will eat up prime agricultural land. The threat of climate change loomed; no one is sure how much the sea could rise or how it could thwart their plans.
Seven50 will host three more summits like this one. It’s unclear whether a seven-county regional plan will get the buy-in organizers are hoping for. Elected officials, who ultimately make such decisions, want to do best for their corners.
Miramar Commissioner Wayne Messam couches it this way.
“Our goal is to make Miramar the best place that it can be for businesses and families,” he said. “If we’re successful in doing that, we raise the entire region up.”