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Miami Beach mayor: Take your tech start-up gospel, and shove it

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In the chatter around urban revitalization over the past few years, no idea has caught local officials' imaginations more than the idea of filling their downtowns with tech start-ups, in hopes of growing the next Google or Facebook. The list of self-proclaimed "next Silicon Valleys" is long, from those with an unimpeachably legitimate claim to the title -- New York and Los Angeles, for example -- to those that likely won't ever deserve it. It's not just the promise of jobs that attracts them: It's the appeal of youthful energy and innovation, which might lure back sons and daughters who've left for bigger thrills.

At least one city, however, isn't interested in the glitz and glamour of start-up utopia.

"It's the dumbest idea in the world," said Phil Levine, mayor of Miami Beach, Fla., speaking at this week's U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. "People cling on to things that are not the highest and best use for their city. Miami Beach is never going to be a high tech hub. As much as it sounds great, it's sexy, that's not who we are."

Why not? Well, the city has neither a bunch of cheap office space nor good universities, which are two of the key ingredients of a successful start-up culture. But it does have a lot of cruise ships. Instead of buying into the "creative class" dogma, Levine -- who himself built a huge cruise ship concessionaire in Miami Beach from scratch -- thinks the city should focus on the things it does well.

"It's important for cities to play to their strengths. Don't try to be something you're not," he said. "Miami Beach, our strengths are tourism and travel. We also think there's great opportunity for us to attract hedge funds and private equity groups, because what do they need? They're looking for, number one, quality of life. We have it. Number two, they want beautiful places to live, Miami Beach, we have it. Number three, they want tax savings. You move from New York to Florida, you're going to save probably almost 10 percent on your income. So we're a little bit like the Monaco of America, and that's who we are."

That may be the luxury of a city that hasn't seen nearly its entire industrial base disappear, like Detroit and Pittsburgh, which have tried to foster their start-up scenes because they have not much to lose. It's also not a good reason why a city shouldn't take steps to create friendly conditions for tech companies, like Kansas City and Chattanooga have by building out super-fast municipal fiber networks. Still, it's a decent reminder that all cities can't bank on a tech start-up playground as their competitive advantage -- because then there's no advantage anyway.

"Every city in America, they have something. They have a core," Levine said. "And I think it's important to build on the core."

Which isn't to say some tech companies won't try to push their way in. After Levine spoke, a representative of the car service Uber -- which is sponsoring Wednesday night's opening reception for hundreds of mayors -- approached him with a request. "We'd love to embarrass that city across the water," said the Uber rep, referring to Uber holdout Miami proper, "by making Miami Beach the first city to get Uber."

Of course, Uber's exactly what a travel, tourism, and hedge fund-based economy really needs.