Homestead – A Tale Of Two Cities

As Charles Dickens rolled in his grave, I came to a stop at the intersection of US 1 and Campbell Drive (SW 312 ST).

The images of City Hall, Harris Field, and the areas surrounding this particular intersection still very much alive in my mind 15 years later. Few conversations regarding Homestead ever go over the 2-minute mark without making reference to what happened on that fateful Monday morning of August 24, 1992. While Bryan Norcross and Rick Sanchez – in his mesh Minnesota Twins baseball cap – were becoming local celebrities and advancing their professional careers, South Dade residents were left wondering what 126,000 severely damaged (some destroyed) homes, 180,000 homeless people, and $30 Billion in damage ($16 Billion insured) meant.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, few could have imagined that more than 600,000 insurance claims would be filed, that approximately 25% of the nation’s insurance adjusters would temporarily make South Florida home, that eleven (11) insurance companies would go bankrupt, that thirty (30) others would lose up to 20% or more of their surplus, that about 930,000 policyholders would be left with no coverage options, that insurance regulations and construction codes would be completely overhauled, that government-created insurance pools and catastrophe funds would come to existence, that “wind policy” would become part of our (realtors, mortgage brokers, insurance agents, etc.) everyday vocab, that life in South Dade, as residents knew it, would never be the same again.

At the time that Andrew flattened homes and left acreage upon acreage of lime groves in South Dade looking like raw vacant land, Homestead Air Force Base was home to 6,000 airmen and their families, 2,000 civilian jobs, and represented $400 million annually to the local economy.

That changed overnight. Literally. Ninety-seven percent of the Base’s facilities were severely damaged or destroyed. Already listed as one of several bases to be downsized, the recovery was deemed too expensive and not militarily justifiable. The Pentagon, much to the chagrin of Poppa Bush’s political motivations, pulled most of its personnel and activities out of the base. To say that city leaders were left with a huge void to fill would be an insulting understatement.

Today, the former Air Force Base serves as the Homestead Air Reserve Base. It sits on approximately half of the 2,900-acre property. The other half is leased to Miami-Dade County and other agencies by the Air Force. A Job Corps center, a homeless shelter, and a park inhabit the surplus half.

Disasters tend to expose the problems that exist in a community prior to the disaster. Remember the Big Facil after Katrina? With Homestead Air Force Base no longer in existence, Homestead was back to being nothing more than an agricultural-based economy. Not a bad thing if one was living during the Neolithic Revolution, but an agricultural-based economy at the inception of the Information Age?

Homestead was left to rebuild with a rising Hispanic population, migrant workers mostly from Mexico and Central America, the poorest of Homestead’s work force. The middle class, mostly retirees with enough income to spend on something more than survival goods, was gone. So too were the retirees with federal Medicare coverage who helped turn out a $850,000 profit at Homestead Hospital the year before the storm; replaced by poor families with no health insurance who often cannot afford treatment.

How do you fill a $400 million gap in your local economy, you ask?

How do you prevent the flight of middle-class residents from Homestead at a time when you need them the most?

How do you bring them back once they’ve left?

How do you replace them if they refuse to come back?

I knew you would be asking yourselves these very same questions.

Got any answers?

Don’t look at me. The answers to those questions are not exactly 2 + 2 = 5.

I’m just a realtor, dude. I sit in front of a computer all day and wait for my phone to ring.

OK, I don’t know if I have the answers to those questions, but I think I do know how you don’t fill a $400 million gap in your local economy.

You don’t build a $22 million baseball complex complete with a 6,500-seat stadium, five practice fields, a clubhouse, batting cages, dormitory, four softball fields, and special events areas and lease it to the Cleveland Indians for 20 years.

I know, I know, hindsight is 20/20 and one shouldn’t kick anybody when they’re down. After all, the Cleveland Indians opted to move to Winter Haven after Andy came through for fear of losing their “middle-class” fans and left the City hanging. Or did they? The team exercised a clause in its contract and pulled out – before ever pulling in – without penalty. Adding insult to injury, Homestead spent an additional $9 million repairing the damage to the complex. It costs an average of $300,000 annually to maintain the complex and takes in only about $90,000 per year. To this day, the complex sits tenantless. Apparently, the other 18 major league teams that train in Florida during the spring don’t think that traveling to Homestead makes much logistical sense. The team that trains closest to Homestead, the Baltimore Orioles, is close to 70 miles north in Ft. Lauderdale. Add to that the price of gas and…

Homestead officials finally gave up trying to sell or lease the baseball complex in 2005. According to City Manager Curt Ivy, the complex “will remain a recreational area for the community” unless something better comes along. I hear some beer-leaguers play really important softball games select weekends at the complex.

“Go Indians…(belch)!”

In the late 90s, local business and political leaders planned to build a commercial airport on the grounds of the still idle aforementioned Homestead Air Force Base. Its intention was to ease the burden of Miami International Airport and coincidentally serve as an engine for Homestead’s struggling economy. City leaders envisioned a two-runway commercial airport that would serve as the landing spot of choice for tens of thousands of cargo and passenger flights each year. Ancillary development would soon follow and Homestead would become the Miami Springs of the south – on HGH.

Environmental groups like Friends of the Everglades strongly opposed the plan from the get go, citing the danger that an airport of that magnitude posed to its neighbors, the Everglades, and Biscayne National Park; not to mention Turkey Point just five miles to the southeast. The Air Force shot down the plan – twice to be exact. They went as far as adding a deed restriction to the area leased to the county stipulating that the area cannot be converted into a commercial airport.

Driving through Kendall Drive – excuse me – Campbell Drive east of US 1 and the Florida Turnpike, one would never imagine that the commercial airport never materialized. Dozens of subdivisions containing thousands of single-family homes, townhomes, and condominium units with original names like Villa Portofino, Malibu Bay, Waterstone, Crystal Lakes, and Oasis adorn stretches of Campbell Drive and the surrounding area. Hundreds, if not thousands more are under construction.

According to the US Census Bureau, Homestead grew an estimated 68.5% from 2000-2006 (31,909 to 53,767). Furthermore, the city’s director of development services, Shari Kamali, has confirmed that 2,882 certificates of occupancy (CO) for residential units were issued in fiscal year 2006 alone. An additional 4,332 COs for residential units were issued in fiscal years 2003-2005. A City of Homestead community profile available on the City’s website expects the population to increase to over 70,000 by 2011. Miami-Dade County officials expect it to reach about 137,000 in the year 2015.

Campbell Drive is also home to the new $135 million Homestead Hospital. Located at 975 Baptist Way on the north side of Campbell Drive just east of the Florida Turnpike, the Baptist Health owned hospital replaces the old one at 160 NW 13 ST and features 120 beds in all private patient rooms, an emergency room double the size of the old one, and six operating rooms with equipment and layouts said to be among the most advanced in South Florida. The hospital is expected to exceed 300 beds in 10 to 15 years. Despite the large investment, Homestead Hospital CEO Bill Duquette expects the hospital to lose about $30 million in 2007. He believes the hospital will come closer to breaking even in five to six years when a “better payer mix” moves to the area.

“Better payer mix”? Wishful thinking or perceived reality?

It’s not that I don’t want to see Homestead Hospital (or the City of Homestead for that matter) succeed. It’s just that I look around the “other Homestead” and all I see is a sterile environment that serves as a poster child for urban sprawl and poor community planning. I don’t see how this environment can appeal to the people that can provide Homestead with the “better payer mix”. A development strategy that attempts to appeal only to traditional families at a time when only an estimated 23.5% of the American population lives in the standard nuclear family with two parents and children at home is a recipe for disaster. Conformity, fitting in, and “playing your position”, characteristics that defined the organizational age, are no longer the norms in a post 911 society. The strong bonds that once gave structure to society have been replaced by weak ties that allow us to meet different people, make friends and acquaintances with people from all walks of life, and live quasi-anonymous lives. Long gone are the days of “el compromiso”. Talented and creative professionals, what should be not only Homestead’s, but every city’s target market, seek vibrancy, abundant natural amenities, and most of all, the opportunity to live in a community that allows them to validate their identity and express their individuality and creativity.

You don’t attract these people by recreating every other new age suburb in America. You don’t attract these people by building thousands upon thousands of cookie cutter homes in homogenized subdivisions. You don’t attract these people by building poorly designed shopping centers and strip malls with loads of unsightly surface parking. You don’t attract these people via big name chain restaurants. You don’t attract these people by bringing in Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and all the other usual suspects into your community in the name of service sector jobs. You don’t attract these people when five schools, including both high schools, zoned to your area receive an “F” in their FCAT performance.

You attract these people by creating a unique experience. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” strategy. Cities have to build off of the unique assets already in existence, which is why I feel so strongly about Homestead. City leaders had an opportunity to get it right and build off of the feeling evoked by downtown Main Street on the original side of the city, but chose (consciously or not) to do the exact opposite. Instead of smart growth, they went for tax base growth.