Homestead - South Dade

Homestead hopes $26 million for projects helps spark new life for its downtown

“It’s a little musty in here,” Rick Ammirato warned as he unlocked the front doors of the long-shuttered Seminole Theatre, built in 1921 as a movie palace on Homestead’s main drag, restored after a fire in 1940 and devastated again by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Inside, the auditorium is stripped down to cement. There is not a shred of red velvet in sight, not a seat in the house, an empty stage. There are no lights to dim when a show begins, no laughter or applause bouncing off the walls.

A half block to the south, in a narrow, two-story structure built as a bank in 1912, the city’s police force struggles in a cramped space that barely meets the requirements of a modern law enforcement organization. The building is used by 108 sworn officers, a couple of dozen reserve officers and a staff of about 30, although not all at the same time. There is insufficient space for all of the offices, briefing rooms and training facilities needed, and the building is infused with mold and radon. Ceilings leak like sieves with each heavy rain.

“Everything is wrong with it,” said Police Chief Al Rolle, who has been on the force for 34 years. “It’s just a mess.”

That’s about to change. Last month, Homestead residents approved the city’s plan to borrow $26 million in general-obligation bonds to spruce up its listless downtown, with the view of transforming it into a cultural hub. Among the expenditures: $18 million for a new police headquarters, $3 million to fix up the city’s sports complex to accommodate the police department while its new facility is being built, and $5 million to renovate the Seminole Theatre. Over the past 15 years, the city has spent more than $1.8 million on renovating the theater but never finished the project due to the recession.

There are also proposals in place for a new City Hall, a parking structure where the current police station lies and, possibly, a new county library. There are plans to build a 556-foot observation tower, inspired by the Space Needle in Seattle, that would enable visitors to admire, from above, Everglades and Biscayne national parks on either side of town.

“Each piece individually may not be enough to bring life back to the downtown, but six of them might,” said Ammirato, the executive director of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The theater alone has “a ton of potential,” he went on, and could offer programming “that reaches across to every person here.”

Work on the theater is likely to get under way first. As a structure, it’s been through a lot.

“Andrew took the roof off,” Ammirato said of the Category 5 hurricane that pounded Homestead and Florida City on Aug. 24, 1992. After the tempest had subsided and the cleanup had begun, the theater’s overwhelmed owners deeded it to the city.

To date, the city has repaired the roof and added wings to the north and south sides of the building, as well as a fly loft — from which stage sets and lights are hung — above the stage to convert the space from a movie house to a theater for live performances.

The wing on the south side was designed for dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, meeting rooms and offices, but nothing was built except the walls to house them. The north side contains concession spaces on the ground floor, topped off by a second-floor terrace that is intended for social occasions and that overlooks Losner Park and its bandshell, built in 1996.

When the recession hit in 2008, the job of restoring the theater ground to a halt. “At that point a great deal of those funds dried up,” Ammirato said as he walked around the building, flashlight in hand.

In the lobby one can still see the footprint of the old box office, a one-person booth from which patrons bought tickets for the movies, many of which were in Spanish to cater to the area’s growing population of Hispanic agricultural workers. The original booth survived, and is in storage for a possible return to its original spot, even though tickets will most likely no longer be sold from its tiny enclosure. What was once a barbershop to the left of the lobby will probably serve as the new box office.

Above and behind the auditorium, two rusty IPC Simplex movie projectors, provided decades ago by the National Theatre Supply Company, remain in place, pointed at the small apertures through which countless reels of film were beamed onto the flickering screen beyond.

The only spot of color inside the Seminole Theatre is a mural, its paint much damaged by age and water, that pays homage to superheroes of Latin American lore. Once the building is finished, its auditorium will have 450 seats, although it’s not yet clear whether red velvet will predominate. Outside the structure, an Art Deco-inspired marquee proclaims the theater’s name, and when the lights come back on, it should be visible from blocks away.

A feasibility study conducted for the city by a consultant noted among other factors that the Seminole is the only venue of its size and type within a 15-mile radius of Homestead, and suggested bringing in an institution such as Miami Dade College to expand the site’s cultural and educational offerings. The study also emphasized the importance of Spanish-language programs and events.

Linda Fagan, a family doctor who is president of the Seminole Theatre board, said she and her colleagues had become “exhausted” over the many years it took to launch the final phase of the building’s restoration. “It was our passion to get it finished and get it running,” she said. “Every three or four years, whoever was in office said they’d help us, but it never came about.”

Bucket for leaks

Down the street, in the 102-year-old building that has housed the police since 1981, a large bucket has a permanent place in the squad room, placed strategically under a persistent leak in the ceiling. Air vents, saturated with mold, are cleaned regularly, and yet the mold returns.

“I have sinus problems all the time,” said Capt. Tony Sincore, who has spent 24 years on the force and whose office is equipped with a large, humming air filter. “When I come here in the morning, I start sneezing right away. The health issues here are pretty bad.”

Sincore said the department had learned to be creative in using its space. “We’re running out of places to put things,” he said. Evidence bags are stored in three separate locations, including lockers in a hallway and behind a door marked “Utility Room.” Hallways are used to house piles of cardboard boxes. There are boxes even in the chief’s conference room.

The office of the records clerk, Widmy Laguerre, is stuffed under a small staircase. “After a while,” he said, smiling, “you get comfortable.”

Lt. Scott Bell, a three-decade veteran who is in charge of facilities, said that when the department took over the building from First National Bank in 1981, there were only 50 or 60 officers on the force and the population of Homestead was about 32,000 — a figure that has since more than doubled. Bell said that a new, larger police station had been contemplated before the recession of 2008, “but then your priorities change.”

The temporary headquarters will be housed in part of the Homestead Sports Complex — a baseball stadium built in 1991 with $21 million in county tourism tax dollars to host spring training games for the Cleveland Indians. After Andrew hit in 1992, however, the team relocated to Winter Haven. (The Indians now train in Arizona.)

The department may spend three or four years there until the new police facility is finished and ready for occupancy.

First, though, the baseball building must be adapted to police use, Bell said, including construction of holding cells — “what most people call our customer-service area.”