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Post-Hurricane Andrew destruction, Homestead is reinventing itself

Homestead residents celebrate the opening of the renovated Seminole Theatre in October 2015.
Homestead residents celebrate the opening of the renovated Seminole Theatre in October 2015. pportal@miamiherald.com

Not so long ago, Homestead’s century-old main street was the inviting center of a lively, small-town commercial district. Krome Avenue boasted banks, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, and a row of antique shops and authentic Mexican and local restaurants where residents and visitors on their way to the Keys or Everglades National Park would flock.

Today, 25 years after Hurricane Andrew slammed disastrously through Homestead and begat what turned out to be a long, slow slump for the town’s historic downtown district, Krome Avenue is virtually a ghost town.

Its Mexican-dining anchors, Casita Tejas and El Toro Taco, hang on amid dwindling business, but longtime stalwart Jacobsen’s is the only surviving antique store. Vacant storefronts far outnumber those still open for business, giving the well-tended street, with its trees and flower beds, its old-fashioned light posts and cheery signage, an eerie Twilight Zone feel.

“There’s a stillness out there,” said former councilwoman Ruth Campbell, 97, who moved to Homestead in the the early ’40s. Campbell first saw Homestead as a small country town tucked away between potato and tomato fields and has been at the forefront of its evolution. “It feels like I’m just waiting for something to happen.”

It didn’t help matters when the for-profit Dade Medical College, which controlled a significant stretch of commercial buildings on Krome, collapsed two years ago amid a municipal corruption scandal that also took down then-Homestead Mayor Steven Bateman.

But even as it appears to have hit economic bottom, Homestead’s compact downtown is actually poised on the edge of what could be a tantalizing resuscitation — the result of an imaginatively ambitious and fast-moving strategy by municipal leaders under a new administration.

Fueled by at least $120 million in public and private investment, the strategy aims to restore the Krome Avenue district to its historic role as the focal point of Homestead life, lure back tourists and position downtown as a regional hub for public transit.

“There was almost no hope for it,” said Jeff Porter, Homestead’s mayor since 2013. “Former city leaders wanted Krome to be an antique district. When the city tried that, we saw no success. It was bringing nobody in, so we had to go back and redevelop our roots. We had to go back to where we began and give it a shot in the arm, creating a foot-traffic model that has been desperately needed there.”

The blueprint has already borne some striking results: The historic Seminole Theatre, an Art Deco movie house that sat vacant and moldering for four decades amid stalled efforts at renovation, finally reopened in 2015 after Homestead voters agreed to spend $5 million to expand and restore it as a home for live theater and events. The Seminole, managed for the city by Pinnacle Venue Services, has since hosted 400 events, from community theater productions to school graduations and a performing-arts summer camp, not to mention the Shanghai Acrobats from China and a concert by the legendary Art Garfunkel.

Next door, set back grandly from Krome Avenue behind a small park that’s slated to triple in size, sits the architecturally distinctive new police station, which replaces an old HQ that was obsolete, cramped and infested with mold and radon. The pillared, classically inspired new station, painted in gleaming white, is topped by a ziggurat-shaped crown that, according to architect Raul Rodriguez, deliberately recalls the top of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami.

But there’s nothing more telling about Homestead’s outsized ambitions and topsy-turvy history than its 1-year-old, $26 million city hall — a grand Neo-Classical edifice harking back to the days when American democratic values were celebrated in brick and mortar. The domed and be-columned council chamber surpasses all others in Miami-Dade County in civic and architectural grandeur.

The municipal building, set on a broad plaza on Washington Avenue, a block off Krome, may strike some as much too imposing for a modest city of just 60,000 at the far end of south Miami-Dade, city leaders acknowledge. But it provides the growing city with a civic focal point and is key to their hopes for a downtown revamp.

The new building replaced a mold-infested municipal building on U.S. 1. That building had replaced Homestead’s original town hall on Krome Avenue, today a historic museum, in 1975.

But moving city government away from downtown turned out to be an early factor in its decline, drawing activity and foot traffic away from Krome and signaling that the district was no longer central to Homestead’s future, City Manager George Gretsas said.

Putting city hall back downtown, along with the new police station as a second bookend, tells the world that municipal leaders and taxpayers are confident in its prospects — and private investors and businesses should be, too, Gretsas said.

“It sends a signal to the private sector that the city has skin in the game,” he said. “It was hard to get people to believe because nothing had happened here in a long time. The best way to get people to believe is to show good deeds, that we’re a functional government and totally focused on improving the local economy.”

And it’s already worked.

When a delegation of Homestead officials set up a booth at the 2015 annual convention of shopping center operators in Las Vegas, touting the new city hall and the restored Seminole Theatre, they quickly drew the interest of ShowBiz Cinemas, an operator of movie theaters based in Texas. Within months, there was a deal for an unusual and ambitious blueprint.

ShowBiz and Axiom Construction will build cinemas, a bowling alley, shops, bars and restaurants on the Krome Avenue site of the old police building and a pair of adjacent long-standing but dilapidated commercial buildings in a historic district, all of which were recently demolished.

“When I first visited Homestead I thought it was certainly a work in progress but a diamond in the rough,” said Kevin Mitchell, CEO of ShowBiz. “We looked at the market and then the potential of the market. Then we looked at what it was missing — Homestead has an underserved market from a family entertainment standpoint, which encouraged us to take risks and open up our first Florida location. Not only are we certain outside dollars will pour in, but we’re sure Homestead is a destination city that will change the entire landscape.”

A second pillar to the Homestead Station project is a 1,000-space parking garage to serve not just the theater complex and Krome Avenue merchants, but a planned park-and-ride transit hub at the adjacent South Dade busway. Under a new county transit plan, the busway could be converted to run Bus Rapid Transit — express buses that operate much like trains — or, less likely, rail service. A local trolley circulator, already in operation, would connect the east and west sides of the city to the downtown area.

The project will be financed with $33 million from the city, including bond revenue and money from Homestead’s share of the county transportation sales taxes, plus private investment from the developers. Construction bids have not yet been finalized.

Then there is the leading-edge bit: City administrators, looking to replace an outdated Miami-Dade branch library in town, hit on an idea for what they call the Cybrary. The futuristic media center would combine the function of a traditional library, with 100,000 print and e-books and a reading room, and digital “robots” and learning exhibitions designed to help kids and adult users find information and inspire reading.

Traditional library functions, like checking out a book, would be free, while digital features would generate revenue, attracting both locals and tourists. The procurement process deciding what company will develop the “Cybrary” hasn’t begun yet, however the city would retain licensing rights with a goal of replicating the cyber-library elsewhere and generating even more revenue. To help finance the initiative, the city applied for $8 million in federal tax credits, Gretsas said. The city doesn’t have estimates of how much licensing could yield.

That’s not even the most fanciful twist in Homestead’s plans, though.

Planners have dreamed up a concept for an “iconic attraction” downtown that would consist of a 550-foot observation tower and a “4-D” theater with an Everglades theme. Though at the moment it’s purely an idea sketched out to attract the interest of private investors, Gretsas says the city is serious about pursuing it.

Underlying the various projects is the thought that Homestead’s alluring downtown is ideally positioned to again grab the attention, and spending money, of some of the three to four million people who pass through the town on U.S. 1 on the way to and from the Everglades, the Keys and the area’s second U.S. preserve, Biscayne National Park.

The town took a modest first step toward that goal about five years ago, when it established a free weekend trolley service to the national parks during tourist season. The trolley now stops in front of Losner Park on Krome Avenue, but a formal berth for the service will be integrated into the Homestead Station project.

Once Homestead Station is complete, Losner Park is set for an expansion designed by the well-known landscape architecture firm Sasaki Associates, based in Boston, that would serve as the city’s centrally located front porch.

The city also aims to leverage another existing strength — Miami Dade College’s Homestead campus. Though it sits just a couple of blocks from the downtown district, Gretsas says its 10,000 students rarely cross over because there’s little for them to seek out.

Miami Dade College is in the funding stage of a new student center. The institution, along with the city, is hoping that the center would physically connect the campus to the downtown district and draw town and gown closer together.

Looking farther ahead, Homestead officials also hope to develop a mid-rise, workforce-housing residential building with ground-floor retail on the busway transit route, and redevelop the site of the former town hall on U.S. 1, possibly as a commercial innovation incubator.

The city’s rapid success on its far-reaching agenda has created a buzz in the business world, said Yvette Knowles, director of Homestead Main Street, a nonprofit that works with the city’s community redevelopment agency to revitalize its downtown.

“Four years ago, five years ago things were looking pretty grim,” Knowles said. “But with all the progress that’s been done in past three years, we’re finally moving in the right direction.

“I’ve got inquiries coming in about what’s available and what rents are. I’m very, very positive about the future. Psychologically, people feel the city is making this huge financial commitment to downtown, and private money is coming in. Everything is being done really rapidly. People see things happening.

“I’m totally in awe of the city management and city council,” she said.

The longtime family owners of El Toro Taco, which is celebrating its 41st anniversary this year, said they were able to stay in business only because they own the entire block around the restaurant and could survive by renting out adjacent storefronts to small businesses like a barbershop, a salon and a party-favors shop.

Family head Estéfana Hernández said she’s counting heavily on the Homestead Station project to lift El Toro Taco’s financial prospects.

“We have been waiting a long time for something,” Hernandez said. “We are very hopeful about it.”

The downtown’s decline was rooted partly in decisions by Homestead leaders over several decades and partly in a natural disaster of unprecedented scale. When Andrew struck, Homestead, Miami-Dade’s second-oldest municipality, was a rural town of 17,000 people surrounded by farmland. The hurricane nearly wiped out the town, damaging or destroying around 80 percent of its aging housing stock, Gretsas said.

“The city was like a war zone. I served in the war in Korea so I know what one looks like,” said Nick Sincore, who sat on the city council from 1971 to 2003. “Homestead was almost completely wiped off the map.”

Homestead leaders decided its future lay in encouraging a breakneck sprawl of residential, shopping-mall and commercial development on the potato fields and farms on the east side of U.S. 1 that had long supported the town’s economy. Before long, Homestead was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

The population popped and the town’s treasury expanded like Jiffy Pop. But a series of insular gated housing developments served primarily as a sprawling bedroom community for points north. Their residents had little physical connection or emotional identification with Homestead’s downtown and the surrounding west side. The malls drew commercial activity away, little by little draining the district of life and business. Downtown Homestead began getting that “left behind” feeling.

Realizing they needed to do something to reverse the downtown’s slide, Homestead city officials began planning to build a new city hall there a decade ago. The town hired the Coral Gables firm of Rodriguez & Quiroga, which had designed the MDC campus, to draw up a blueprint.

But when the Great Recession turned Homestead into the center of the home-foreclosure crisis in Miami-Dade and brought the municipality’s finances crashing down with it, the city hall project was shelved. The total value of assessed property in the city dropped 54 percent in the recession’s wake.

Meanwhile, Dade Medical College operator Ernesto Perez began buying up Krome Avenue properties and pushing out tenants, including Art South, a nonprofit organization that reaches neighborhoods lacking cultural resources by supplying arts programming, education and other activities. When the college collapsed, it left multiple buildings vacant on both sides of Krome.

When the condition of the previous city hall and the old police headquarters condition deteriorated to the point that both cops and city officials had to move to temporary quarters, the council revived the project. It gained new momentum with the departure of Bateman, who had backed renovating the former city building, amid the easing of the foreclosure crisis and the revival of the city’s financial fortunes.

“It will probably save our city in many ways,” said Russell Black, a longtime Homestead missionary and former pastor, of the city strategy. “For a long time we’ve had a rundown city hall, police station, rundown everything. Now it’s like there’s a sudden growth and new hope.”

“It was key placing all these things in the downtown area,” said Porter, the mayor. “We imagined it would bring in people who maybe would not normally be there — contractors, lawyers, employees, people who do business with the city or go to city hall to file paperwork. All these people bring in traffic and a presence that this place has literally been dying for.”

The city went to voters in 2014 and won approval for bonds for the police station and Seminole Theatre, which had undergone severe deterioration after Andrew tore off its roof. The Seminole got a 450-seat auditorium with an orchestra pit, high-tech lighting and sound. The building was expanded to include fly-space and dressing rooms necessary for live theater and concerts. Demand for it was high from the start, enlivening Krome Avenue and helping its handful of surviving restaurant operators on event nights, said Mickey McGuire, Seminole Theatre’s executive director.

The city’s administrators, though, knew that the Seminole Theatre and a new city hall and police station by themselves would not resuscitate downtown. That would require the private sector investment, city administrators said.

And attracting private investors would require persuading them that there’s money to be spent in downtown Homestead. The city paid for a survey from Buxton of credit-card spending by residents of Homestead’s east side to see where they were spending their shopping and entertainment money.

The survey found much of that spending wasn’t happening in Homestead, but elsewhere. Many residents were going as far as Dolphin Mall for shopping, dining and fun.

The city planning brain trust, though, realized they had something special already — a traditional, compact and walkable downtown at a time when people were seeking out pedestrian-friendly urban centers and authentic experiences, so they settled on dining and entertainment as a potential key to resuscitating the Krome Avenue district.

So far, they’ve been proven right, said some longtime residents.

In the end, they say, Hurricane Andrew may have been a blessing in disguise by forcing the city to embrace growth and reinvention. Now, Homestead and its downtown are in an enviable position, poised to become the center of the action as Miami-Dade’s population center moves decidedly south.

“It’s built out. You can’t go east because you have the ocean, and you can’t go west because of the Everglades,” said Sincore, the former councilman. “We’re it — the city of the future.”

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