If all goes according to plan, Homestead’s somewhat forlorn downtown will get a $60 million facelift in the next decade or so, with a new city hall, police station, library and parking garage, and a restored Art Deco movie theater.
In addition, there is talk of building a 556-foot observation tower, akin to Seattle's Space Needle, that would draw visitors eager to catch a bird's-eye view of the Everglades and Biscayne national parks nearby.
The first step in making some of those plans happen is a bond referendum on May 13 in which residents will be asked to approve funding for the new police headquarters and the restoration of the Seminole Theatre, which is envisaged as a cultural center for the city.
If the general-obligation bonds are approved, $18 million will go toward the new police facility, with another $3 million for refurbishment of a temporary headquarters while the new structure is built. A total of $5 million would be spent on renovating the Seminole Theatre, a task begun some years ago but left incomplete.
"We have to build some momentum and some belief in ourselves," said Mayor Jeff Porter, whose predecessor was arrested on corruption charges last year and removed from office. "We really have to feel better about ourselves."
Homestead, with about 65,000 inhabitants, has had a tough time recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the more recent setbacks to the economy. Krome Avenue, the main thoroughfare downtown, is not a lively place, with little foot traffic and only a handful of businesses, some of them dowdy thrift stores.
The city's police force has for decades been housed in an inadequate structure, built as a bank in 1910, when Homestead had 120 residents and a considerably smaller contingent of officers. A recent environmental study determined that the building has high levels of radon, as well as mold, clogged water drains, cracks in the walls and water damage.
The old bank building does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, nor does it meet Federal Emergency Management Agency standards as a “critical facility” that could serve effectively during emergencies such as hurricanes. The two-story structure lacks elevators and has limited bathroom space, and is not considered a good candidate for renovation as a modern police station.
Instead, the officers and their commanders will be moved to a building — once it’s refurbished — at the Homestead Sports Complex three miles from downtown. The complex was built by the city in 1991 as a spring-training facility for the Cleveland Indians, a plan that was derailed by Hurricane Andrew and which never got back on track. There are three viable sites for a new police headquarters, Porter said, all of them on city-owned land.
Fixing up the shuttered Seminole Theatre is viewed as the centerpiece of a revival of the city’s downtown, an area listed since 2007 on the National Register of Historic Places. The mayor said that a private group had embarked some time ago on a restoration of the 1920s-era theater — including construction of an orchestra pit and a fly loft — but money for the project had dried up.
“Agreements were made, but that was really not going anywhere,” Porter said. “They lost momentum. So the best thing we can do is finish the renovation.”
A potential tenant of the restored theater is the Homestead Center for the Arts, an organization founded in 1976 to promote cultural and educational endeavors but which — despite its use of the word “center” — has no permanent home. Charlie Hudson, whose title is corresponding secretary, said it remained to be seen whether the Seminole Theatre might house her group, which for now is “a virtual kind of thing” with a post office address.
“If I had the say-so, it would seem the logical thing to do, but we haven’t gotten to that stage,” said Hudson, who was busy planning the organization’s annual Celebration of the Arts Gala on May 19 at the Woman’s Club of Homestead.
Beyond the future of the theater, officials are considering a privately owned building downtown, empty for a long time, as the potential new site for a county library. The area’s current library is on Dixie Highway at Campbell Drive, not an easy walk from the center of the city.
Homestead officials have also set aside $17 million for a new city hall, with a proposed site on Washington Avenue, a stone’s throw from the historic district. The building, which has already been designed, would cost roughly $25 million, and officials foresee borrowing the difference, Porter said.
Since February 2013, the mayor and his colleagues have been working from leased offices in a shopping center, Portofino Plaza, more than two miles east of downtown, a move precipitated by the discovery of radon and other harmful substances in the old city hall — problems similar to those uncovered in the police station.
“Having a city hall located on the second floor over a pizza shop — well, we don’t belong there,” Porter said. “We want to put most of our municipal services downtown, close to the transportation system.”
A previous plan to build a new city hall was launched in 2007 with a groundbreaking on a purchased site, but, the mayor said, “it got caught in political winds” and went no further.
Porter and others reserve most of their excitement for the possibility that investors will agree to build an observation tower, with a rotating platform, on city-owned property near downtown. The site would include other “family-oriented” attractions, and “would really draw people away from the turnpike,” Porter said, pinpointing the thousands of motorists who come and go from the Florida Keys without giving Homestead so much as a glance.
“It’s part of a grand plan of revitalization that includes multiple facets of investment,” the mayor said. “You’re going to see restaurants and bars and the other things that people like to do in a traditional, open-air, downtown environment.”