Fresh off a fizzled attempt to turn its depressed downtown into a mini Georgetown, Homestead is already cooking up something new, and it’s big — really big.
560 feet big.
The city is moving ahead with preliminary plans to build a steel tower that size — one designed to divert tourists zipping down Florida’s Turnpike en route to the Keys. The tower would feature an Everglades-themed interactive theater and an observatory that corkscrews from ground level to the tippy-top, where it would rotate.
From that lofty perch, tourists could gaze out on the River of Grass to the west, Biscayne National Park to the east, Miami’s skyline to the north and the Florida Keys to the south.
This in a city whose current highest elevation is the municipal water tower.
Are they kidding? Not a chance, said Rick Ammirato, the city’s director of community redevelopment.
“It’s not a panacea, but we are hoping it is something that sparks redevelopment downtown,” Ammirato said.
Downtown Homestead could use a spark. Krome Avenue, which bisects the city center, currently features a variety of vacant lots and empty storefronts, as well as health clinics, a hardware store, a recently shuttered burger bar, multiple Mexican restaurants, a long-abandoned movie theater, a derelict motor lodge and Dade Medical College.
The owner of the college, Ernesto Perez, secured a contract to buy 19 municipally-owned lots in and around downtown to expand his educational empire and open other businesses. Former Mayor Steve Bateman, a cheerleader for the endeavor, boasted that Perez’s vision would turn Homestead into a miniature Georgetown. He was then arrested on unrelated corruption charges, which are still pending. His dealings with Perez — Bateman’s real estate agent wife handled some of Perez’s land deal — are being scrutinized by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
Homestead effectively pulled the plug on that plan last week, refusing to give Perez’s associates an extension on the deal to buy the land at a steep discount.
On Wednesday night, the City Council will vote on whether to give a Dallas-based entertainment and tourism consulting company, Leisure and Recreation Concepts, also known as LARC Inc., $32,000 for a comprehensive plan for the tower. The city already paid the company $38,000 for an economic-feasibility study, which determined that the project is indeed feasible.
Michael Jenkins, LARC’s president and founder, said the tower would withstand a storm on par with Hurricane Andrew, which nearly destroyed Homestead in 1992.
LARC, whose website is headlined, “No dream too big, no task too small,” describes itself as “a full-service, turnkey provider of consulting, design, and management services to the entertainment and tourism industries.”
Jenkins, who was involved in the start up of the Six Flags theme park chain, has helped plan dozens of projects from Australia to Brazil to Bahrain to Myrtle Beach. The Internet Broadway Database also credits him with three Tony Awards, and six other nominations, mostly for producing musicals.
Homestead resident Kevin Sullivan, 74, said he supports having LARC move forward on the planning, but added: “For whatever reason, we just don’t seem to get our act together in Homestead. We spend a lot of money, and we don’t seem to get results. There's absolutely nothing to show for it.”
South Florida is a place where ambitious plans are sometimes hatched only to die on the drawing board. Among them: the Watson Island amusement park, the Everglades airport, and the highway linking Key Biscayne to Key Largo, none of which exist.
Homestead says this proposal is grounded in reality. It is less expensive than those others: The city is talking about a public-private partnership with a cost in the $20 million range.
Vice Mayor Stephen Shelley, for one, said the tower idea is better than the college expansion because the city will be calling the shots.
Added Jeff Porter, who succeeded Bateman as Homestead mayor: “Just because you take a swing, and you miss the ball on the first swing, that doesn’t mean you lay the bat down. I think we have to continue to swing until we hit the ball.”