Homestead leaders hope to replace hurricane reputation with historic business hub
By Jaime Levy
When talking to one of Homestead's new economic engineers, don't mention Hurricane Andrew.
'That was then,' they say, uninterested in returning to the jungle of ravaged houses and shredded crops that Andrew left in his wake 10 years ago. 'Look at us now.'
Indeed, to look at downtown Homestead now is to see a breezy main corridor with homey antique shops and a handful of cafes - hard to believe that nearly a decade ago, this place was the epicenter of the nation's most costly natural disaster.
"What an awful thing: to be remembered throughout the nation for such a disaster," said Mary Finlan, president of the Homestead Florida City Chamber of Commerce. "We don't want to be connected with rubble - that's not what we're about. We're about being one of the most unique and desirable places in the whole country."
The four-block historic business district along Krome Avenue is hugged by the historic Seminole Theatre on one end and the budding ArtSouth on the other - two landmarks that many South Dade business leaders say will welcome an arts and entertainment district to the area. Streets with narrow lanes and wide sidewalks predict the downtown area's transformation into a destination.
"There are millions of tourists who come to go down to the Keys," said Ellie Schneiderman, executive director of ArtSouth. "We're right here. I'd like us to exaggerate what Homestead is about - not just have Homestead become Lincoln Road or Coral Gables or Kendall.
"We're right in the middle of a unique area. I'd like to have some impact in the development of this area in a way that's not like a Victoria's Secret and a Gap on every block. There is a way of going back to a different time. I'd like this little four- or five-block area to at least reflect that ambience. I'd like to see a barber shop."
Ms. Schneiderman, a woman who speaks of Homestead's pioneer ambience, is a pioneer herself. By bringing artists to live and work on Lincoln Road in the early 1980s, she was at the vanguard of development in what is arguably one of Miami's hottest spots. But neither she - nor attorney I. Stanley Levine, who headed Miami Beach's reconfiguration of that strip - was pleased with the ultimate outcome: Property values shot through the roof and left artists no longer able to afford studio space. So they eyed Homestead as their next project and opened ArtSouth - a low-rent artists' colony that will eventually be sold, in part, as affordable condominiums - almost a year ago.
"I'm gone from Lincoln Road because my vision of it was to have the cultural communities be the anchors of revitalization," Mr. Levine said. "I was really against a Banana Republic-Gap mall. Because there were 130 property owners, it was capitalism at work, and they sold out to whomever they wanted to sell out to. It's a short-term dream street. Long term, who knows? All the arts and cultural people were gentrified out."
Mr. Levine said his investment in downtown Homestead does not end with ArtSouth. As part of an investment group, he said, he bought up four other buildings downtown. And like other economic generators in the city of 32,000, Mr. Levine said he's confident growth is imminent.
"My biggest problem is how to manage development - not whether there will be any," he said. "We're at the beginning of a process of a big turnaround that's been years coming. We would like to think a lot of that is because of the efforts we're jointly putting in.
"My concern is managing development in a quality manner so that if it does become popular people will understand how to handle it so people aren't just concerned about today's economics. I will preserve something for the future, which will make it more valuable."
Frank May, chair of the economic restructuring committee of Homestead Main Street, is also trying to plan ahead. At the end of the month, the organization is holding a workshop with an outside consultant who will put together a market analysis for the downtown district.
"I think we all feel we're reaching a critical mass. But at that critical mass, one needs to direct it in a manner that's organized and structured instead of letting it unfold in a haphazard manner. All the pieces are coming into place," said Mr. May, who is also vice president of the Seminole Theatre's board of directors, which is raising funds for a $5.7 million expansion and rehabilitation project. "I would like to see an arts and entertainment district in Krome Avenue. I would say it could be done within two years."
Downtown Homestead is not the only part of the city that's growing. Over the next four years, said City Manager Curt Ivy, Homestead is likely to see close to 3,200 single-family units - either houses or condominiums - started. For a city of 32,000, where the average resident-to-household ratio is 3.1, those 3,200 homes signify a 31% population growth.
On the industry side, agriculture continues to reign - but byproducts of the old economy are making for growth on the high-tech front. The clear skies in South Dade make it easier for satellite operators to beam information back and forth from what is essentially the southern tip of mainland Florida. Several satellite companies have recognized the strategic location and have set up shop in the area. The city is working with one of the newly arrived companies, Latamnap, to install a self-healing fiber-optic ring around the city - one whose service would not be interrupted if, for example, it were hit by a backhoe.
"The physical location of Homestead, it's about as south as you can be on the continent. A lot of satellites on the equator are broadcasting to and from the US and Latin America, and the location catches signals from both the US and Latin America," said Russ Pittman, a satellite communications engineering consultant who works with several of Homestead's satellite companies. "Down in Homestead, there's little or no terrestrial interference. It's very, very clean. It's a big thing for people with satellite antennas and teleports."
Most of the satellite companies coming into Homestead are from abroad, said Bob Anderson, head of the Vision Council, Homestead's economic development organization.
"It's amazing. We've had very few American-based tech companies come in and say, gee, this is a great opportunity. But I've had people from Canada, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Venezuela come here. They feel comfortable in South Dade, but also recognize that just up the road we have an airport that gets flights back and forth to Bogota five times a day."
Despite growth downtown, as well as the coming residential and industrial booms, secondary ramifications of Hurricane Andrew's jaunt through South Dade - like the economic blow incurred when a newly built baseball stadium was damaged and the Cleveland Indians backed out of a deal to use it for spring training - have not entirely disappeared. And soon after Andrew, Homestead Air Force Base was realigned - in other words, deactivated and turned into a reserve - a move that cost the city $400 million annually, Mr. Ivy said.
But in conversation after conversation, Homestead's economic activists refused to linger on their decade-old frustrations. Instead, they said, Homestead has moved past its unpleasant history; after all, Hurricane Andrew, the air base realignment, the city's massive debts are just that - history.
"We think the history of the hurricane is important, but we certainly don't look to it to be our identity in any way," Ms. Finlan said. "We're really combating that, and it's hard. The truth is, there are people who only know the name of Homestead, FL, because of the notoriety of Hurricane Andrew. Now we have to be known for something else."