Two weeks after Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton toured the hardest-hit areas of Homestead and Florida City. "We have more tornadoes in our state, and I've seen a lot of little towns leveled," he offered in September 1992. "But I've never seen anything of this magnitude." Clinton had to walk a fine line during that trip. As a candidate for president, he didn't want to appear to be exploiting the suffering of hurricane victims for personal political gain, yet he couldn't help but notice that his opponent, President George Bush, had already visited South Florida twice in the wake of the storm.
"I'm really trying to learn everything I can about what's being done and what's going to have to be done for the next several months and couple of years," Clinton told a group of survivors. "If we do win the election in nine weeks ... we want to know what role we can take as the national government."
Clinton endorsed one of the ideas already espoused by Bush: a pledge to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base. Clinton said he was "moved" by the statements he heard from people in the area about "the economic importance of the base" to the surrounding community.
"If I do win in November," Clinton declared outside one of the tent cities erected in Homestead, "I have to assume the responsibility of getting your community back on its feet."
Steve Shiver is driving through Homestead, pointing out one development project after another, when I make the mistake of asking him a question about a vacant lot he mentioned a few moments earlier but which was now very much behind us. Without hesitating Shiver whips a U-turn and stops only after I suggest he is about to hit a car in the oncoming lane. Undeterred, Shiver presses on, his enthusiasm boundless.
As mayor of Homestead, Shiver has taken boosterism to new heights. And there certainly is a lot to be excited about in this South Miami-Dade municipality. At the center of town, just west of the historic downtown corridor, the city is nearing completion of Pioneer Village, a model community for low- and middle-income families. Beginning in 1995 the city (along with developer Lowell Homes) purchased about 30 acres of land and 66 rundown houses, which are now in the final phase of being refurbished. A historic library in the middle of the gated enclave will be turned into a community center featuring high-speed Internet connections.
"For a long time this was one of the more dangerous neighborhoods," Shiver says. "The police would be called in here on a regular basis. It's not going to be like that again. There's a sense of pride here now that comes with owning your own home."
Less than a block away lies the site of a joint project between Miami-Dade Community College and the state's Technological Research & Development Authority to create a "technology incubator," which along with help from NASA, will try to attract high-tech businesses to Homestead. (Six similar incubators are scattered around the state.) "Carrie Meek got us a million dollars for that project," Shiver beams.
On the outskirts of town is Keys Gate, 800 acres of land where Michael Latterner & Associates is building an ambitious housing development. The Homestead Park of Commerce is already up and running. Initiated by the Rockefeller Group, the park is anchored by a major boat manufacturer and is expected to grow in coming months.
Shiver also is optimistic that a new 200-acre water-theme park will be built soon. The proposed park, which would straddle Homestead and Florida City, would be the biggest amusement center this side of Disney World. "There'll be water slides and roller coasters," Shiver says. "They're working on the financing now."
The motorsports complex east of town is thriving, too, Shiver adds, and there is even talk of building a second complex, south of Palm Drive, to house a drag-racing facility.
Shiver reports that over this past year two new occupational business licenses per week have been issued in Homestead. "For a town of 27,000 people, two new businesses opening every week is pretty good," he smiles. "We're mounting an aggressive campaign to pursue economic development on all fronts, and it's working."
The town's population has rebounded to what it was before Hurricane Andrew, the mayor says. Current unemployment stands at 5.5 percent; in the months before the hurricane it was nearly twice that. (By comparison Miami's unemployment rate currently is 5.8 percent.)
Homestead no longer is an economic wasteland.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the historic downtown. The Seminole Theater, built in 1922, is being refurbished, and along Krome Avenue a budding arts community is taking root. Led by artist Ellie Schneiderman and developer Stanley Levine, who were key players in the renaissance of South Beach, Shiver hopes the historic district will continue to draw people to Homestead. "I went down there a few times and was struck by all the people I met," says Levine. "It just had a wonderful feel."
In the past nine months, Levine has bought five properties along a two-block stretch of downtown, including the old South Dade Baptist Church and the Green Stone Motel. The church complex includes nearly 23,000 square feet of classrooms; the motel is envisioned as a place where artists can stay and exhibit their work. "We have tenants waiting to come in," Levine says, explaining that each motel room will function as a gallery. "We want to turn this area into an artists' community."
Late last year the church was christened as a concert venue by the Florida Philharmonic, which played before a packed house. "The acoustics were wonderful," Levine boasts.
One aspect of Homestead Levine finds appealing is its quaint rural ambiance. "The fact that it has been skipped over is part of its charm," he says. "It's like you've discovered a little gem."
It's a shame that in the final days of his presidency Bill Clinton can't visit Homestead, especially before he makes a decision about the future of Homestead Air Force Base. By now we all know that his campaign promise to rebuild the base was never realized. With bases closing all across the nation, and Cuba no longer a military threat to the United States, it never made sense to restore the base to its prior glory. Following the hurricane, however, the control tower was rebuilt and the Department of Defense did agree to station air force reserve units there. Those units remain in place.
The last time Clinton was in South Dade was in 1993, a year after he was elected. He renewed his pledge to support to the community, which was still reeling from the effects of Andrew.
You have to wonder to what extent that promise weighs on Clinton as he decides whether to allow the base to be turned into a commercial airport. Backers of the airport proposal insist it is essential to the economic well-being of the community, and that by endorsing it, Clinton finally will make good on his 1992 promise to help Homestead get back on its feet.
Guilt is a powerful tool, especially when coupled with ignorance. The president may not know, it but the Homestead of today is not the same one he visited more than seven years ago. Homestead already is back on its feet.
For his part Shiver continues to support the airport proposal promoted by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, despite the fact that it will sit between two national parks and is opposed by every environmental group in the nation, as well as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (whose district includes the Everglades and the Florida Keys), and incoming U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Shiver has been pragmatic, however. "We knew we couldn't rely on the airport being built, so we haven't placed all of our eggs in one basket," he points out. "Does the future of Homestead depend on having the base developed into an airport? No. Would we do better with it as an airport? I think we would."
Some people in Homestead might indeed do better with an airport. But at what price? The very qualities that make Homestead the gem it is today will be destroyed by the uncontrolled growth and pollution that inevitably accompany a new airport.
Clinton shouldn't run from the campaign promises he made in Homestead in 1992. Instead he should recognize that times have changed. But he should live up to the spirit of those promises. He should -- to use his words at the time -- "assume the responsibility" for ensuring the area's economic well-being. And to guarantee its long-term survival, he should permanently block any plans to transform the base into a major airport. The people of Homestead deserve nothing less.
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