If You Sink It, They Will Come

Creating an artificial reef is no longer a slam-dunk affair, despite an abundance of missile sites, water towers, and wanna-be philanthropists

"When you look at the variety of cultural reasons that a country would build a reef in the first place, it's remarkable," notes Seaman.

In the U.S. artificial reefs have historically been built by recreational fishing interests as fish magnets. In the Mediterranean, by contrast, governments have used artificial reefs more as a conservation and restoration tool. Today they are often deployed as physical obstructions to block offshore trawlers from invading coastal sea grass beds that act as spawning grounds and fish nurseries. In the aftermath of World War II, the Japanese government built thousands of reefs and then deeded them to the poor and the landless in what amounted to a social engineering program. The creation of the reefs was a successful public works project, spurring a population shift away from the interior and stimulating a coastal economy. These days large corporations such as Mitsubishi and Hitachi maintain artificial reef divisions that research, manufacture, and deploy reefs the size of shopping malls as part of a vast public-private effort to increase the island nation's self-sufficiency. The reefs are used by commercial fishing cooperatives and benefit the seafood production industry, and are rarely used for recreation.

Some seaside countries have almost no history of creating artificial reefs; France has so far largely shunned the idea. Australia, on the other hand, has gone hog-wild with the notion, and has mirrored the U.S. during the past 30 years by deploying reefs principally for recreation, often using what Seaman calls "objects of opportunity" such as ships, construction debris, and other more intriguing jetsam of the industrial age.

Through the use of such objects, Seaman points out, America's history keeps finding its way into its artificial reefs. For five days in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a perilous stare-down across the Florida Straits, and the world came as close to a nuclear firefight as it ever has. The diplomatic standoff known as the Cuban Missile Crisis began publicly when president John Kennedy announced the U.S.S.R. was building offensive missile and bomber bases in Cuba. It ended when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw weapons of mass destruction from the towns of Guanajay, San Crist centsbal, Remedios, and Sagua la Grande.

Soon after Kennedy's alarming October 22 television speech, the U.S. Army started building a ring of missile launch pads around Homestead Air Force Base, the better to secure it against attack by jet or warhead. The security precautions continued long after the crisis ended. Throughout the early Sixties, military engineers erected as many as a score of three-story concrete-and-steel towers at approximately eight scattered, isolated sites, from the Tamiami Trail to northern Monroe County. Big, square platforms atop the towers supported missile radar guidance systems. The missiles themselves sat nearby on smaller, shorter pedestals. The launch pads were supplied through the late Seventies, some armed with Nike-Hercules missiles, and later with newer, more-compact Hawk missiles.

Since their final decommissioning in 1981, about half the launch sites and the land they sit on have been sold at government auction, passing into private hands. A Franciscan mission in the Redlands owns five of the missile towers. Another government-owned quintet stands two miles south of the posh Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo. Still more of the rusting Cold War monuments hide in the woods near the Miccosukee Indian bingo hall off Krome Avenue, and near the Turkey Point nuclear power plant on the edge of Biscayne Bay.

"They're testimony to a different era, when you had Russian military advisers in Cuba and Soviet missiles pointed at Miami," says Capt. Bobby D'Angelo, spokesman for the 482nd Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Reserve Base. "Those were scary days."

It seemed fitting, then, with the Cold War over, to sink five of the defunct missile towers in the Atlantic to become Dade County's newest artificial reef. At least it did to avid fisherman and lobster hunter Wayne Kennedy, the president of the Ethel & W. George Kennedy Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to helping disadvantaged kids. In 1995 Kennedy, one of several adopted heirs to a Miami construction fortune, purchased 45 acres of land at SW 87th Avenue and 220th Street. Since 1987 the parcel had functioned as a wildlife center, but Hurricane Andrew put it out of business; before that it had been one of the army's Hawk missile sites.

In the shadow of five missile towers, Kennedy set up Bay Point Schools, a private rehabilitation center housing 40 teenage delinquents -- car thieves, junior drug dealers, and other nonviolent juvenile offenders. The school received funding through the federal AmeriCorps service program, and its students helped rebuild storm-damaged homes in South Dade, operating as the Interfaith Coalition for the Andrew Recovery Effort. These days Kennedy reports the students learn construction and culinary skills and spend time studying for their GED diplomas.

Bay Point is in transition. Kennedy is currently negotiating with the county to get a permit to upgrade the center's status from temporary volunteer work camp to permanent vocational school. The process is ticklish, in part because residents near the school aren't thrilled about the proximity of 40 kids with criminal histories. Kennedy decided in October that if he could improve the physical appearance of the school, it would be a plus, so he picked up the phone and called Mostkoff, the county's artificial reef program coordinator.

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