Movies, Chinatown, sports complex are visions for Homestead
By Jaime Levy
Although the US Air Force has not yet ruled on Miami-Dade County's request to transfer part of the Homestead Air Reserve Base to local control, a handful of potential investors are lining up for pieces of the parcel.
The county plans to hold a conference for prospective developers in the spring and would issue a request for proposals before settling on any plans for the 717-acre tract.
Still, possible investors - from regional interests to international coalitions - are fine-tuning ideas.
The overall plan submitted by the county to the Air Force and dubbed 'Destination Everglades' has five parts: an interactive visitors center to greet tourists to the area, an academic research base, a hotel and conference center, an amateur sports complex and training facility, and military retiree housing.
Although the county is requesting the land transfer from the Air Force, it would likely sell at least part of the land in pieces for the various projects.
But the county's application is only a loose outline of potential uses, and other concepts are already surfacing.
A group of investors from New York and Palm Beach, for example, last month presented plans for a movie studio to county commissioners. The group, which hopes to establish itself in the Homestead area by shooting a World War II era movie at the base, states it eventually would build a permanent home for future film productions.
John Corso, producer, director and co-author of Lone Eagle: Legend of the Red Tails, estimated that setting up a studio would pump $300 million into the local economy.
"When we start the film, we'd like to leave as much behind in terms of infrastructure as possible," Mr. Corso said from East Hampton, NY. "We have investors to put in other infrastructure when the studio becomes alive."
He said he is working on the project primarily with Nation Investment, an international financier with a Miami office.
"South Florida," he said, "has absolutely some of the best movie crews around. And they're not as busy as they once were. We'd like to utilize that talent. I need a lot of space for the movie. The size of the base is perfect to accommodate 144 sets, the weather is beautiful, the crews are fantastic. Miami is the best place for us."
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Joe Martinez has thrown his support behind the movie studio, introducing studio representatives who spoke at the commission meeting and retaining an architect to create, pro bono, a rendering of the studio.
"They're very serious," Mr. Martinez said. "They have the backing and finances to shoot this particular movie - $100 million. And they're willing to put in a lot of money for the future.
"After Sept. 11 it became obvious that we can't depend on one industry. The movie industry is a natural fit. We have everything Los Angeles has, except we're closer to South America, Europe and Wall Street.
" 'Destination Everglades' is not really viable - putting a hotel in the middle of nowhere to see alligators. People are not going to stay there," he said. "But if you put an attraction there like a movie studio, they'll visit."
A plan not as well-received among commissioners is a 3,000-resident "Chinatown" with roots in Little Rock, AR. John Mitchell, CEO of Culturally Designed Communities, has turned his eyes to Homestead as a place for a fully developed town with a Chinese theme. The company was established specifically to create these types of communities.
Mr. Mitchell said the town would be similar to an incubator where Chinese immigrants could have a familiar place to live until they are comfortable in the US - and when they move out, a new wave of immigrants could move in.
To attract tourists, Mr. Mitchell said, the town would include replicas of Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The area, Mr. Mitchell said, would have 100 businesses and would, during the course of five years, create 5,000 jobs.
"It gives them a chance to come in, be comfortable and display their culture in a positive manner," said Mr. Mitchell, whose Little Rock consulting firm, Rorex Qin Mitchell & Mitchell, does extensive business in Hong Kong. "The external fašade will be just like China. Inside will be very modern. The street signs will be all Chinese. We'd try to incorporate it so the government can be Chinese."
Culturally Designed Communities, which is researching similar projects in Arkansas, would likely require more land than is available in the Homestead reuse package parcel, Mr. Mitchell said. He said the company's architects are designing a concept for at least 3,000 acres.
Former local AFL-CIO head Marty Urra, who is working with the company to secure funding through one of the organization's investment programs, said the fractured piece of property could be conducive to three parts of the project.
"If you look at the site plan, there's an opportunity for CDC to work with putting together a project with an industrial park, a theme park and a residential area," he said. "The separate segments would not necessarily have to be together."
As for the ideas specifically laid out in the county's formal application to the Air Force, some have received initial interest.
The amateur sports complex, for example, may find a developer in former University of Miami basketball coach Leonard Hamilton, whose All-American Management Team had earlier this year expressed interest in turning the now-dormant Homestead Sports Complex into a facility with dozens of athletic fields and significant dormitory space.
A local attorney who is working with Mr. Hamilton did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Another plan for a visitor information center is prominently on the agenda for the National Park Service, which operates Everglades, Dry Tortugas and other area national parks. The federal agency would consider leasing a new headquarters on the site. Rick Cook, spokesman for the Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, said an influx of funds from Congress would allow his parks division to add more than 50 positions.
"We're actively looking in the community to house those employees. If the county's plan unfolds, we'd like to have discussions with them on how we could fit in," Mr. Cook said. "Over the years we've had discussions here about the desirability of an inter-agency visitors center that could be for the whole variety of public lands in South Florida."
Interest in backers for an academic research center, however, might be more difficult to identify. Although the county's proposal mentions Florida International University, the University of Miami and Florida Atlantic University as possible overseers of such a center, FIU and UM representatives said Tuesday they were not interested.
"Apparently, the university isn't going to be pursuing it," said a UM spokeswoman, who said she had no further information. "The idea didn't garner support internally."
"The university is close to the Everglades now," said Thomas A. Breslin, vice president of research for FIU. "We have a very large base of laboratories and scientific support facilities here at the University Park Campus, which are a result of massive investment over years by the State of Florida.
"It's not in our interest or the interest of the taxpayers of Florida to unnecessarily develop facilities, to disperse specialists over a wider area than is now the case."
FIU's University Park Campus is located between Tamiami Trail and Coral Way at SW 107th Avenue.
Although FAU representatives were more enthusiastic, James Murley, director of the school's Joint Center for Environmental & Urban Problems with FIU, raised questions over whether the state legislature would be willing to finance such a center.
Goodkin Consulting's Jack Winston, who put together the county's final application to the US Air Force, said local schools were unnecessary to the ultimate success of an academic facility in the area.
"There were other universities that we didn't contact, that we discovered are doing research in other facilities off-campus. There are other universities with major concentrations in the environment," he said. "There is enough interest and demand by various universities throughout the country, not just down here in South Florida."
Assistant County Manager Bill Johnson, who has been working on the reuse plan and who earlier this month delivered the county's application for the Air Force land to Washington, DC, said he was "encouraged" by early interest in development. The Air Force is expected to rule within the next few months.
"Until we actually receive word from the federal government and until the board makes a policy decision on how to proceed, anything we do is a courtesy," Mr. Johnson said.
"We want to open it up, make it an international solicitation and make it for all of South Dade. People have come in with a variety of different types of proposals, so it's encouraging."