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In eye of hurricane lies spark of rebirth

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Bill Finley looks at a blank green wall on the side of an empty furniture warehouse and sees a trompe l'oeil, a lush street-scape of this once-hurricane-battered downtown. There are an ice cream parlor and antiques emporium, a boutique and interior design shop, old City Hall and the Seminole Theater restored to their Spanish mission-style origins.

Of course, Krome Avenue looks nothing like this today -- what years of neglect and the lure of strip shopping centers began decades ago, a hurricane named Andrew almost finished last year. At least 15 storefronts on this small-town Main Street are still empty. Vacant lots mar the nearby business district, where everything from satellite-dish companies to flophouses can be found. In the neighborhood to the west, absentee landlords have let their properties decline.

None of this deters William E. Finley. He has seen the future.

The man who carried out James W. Rouse's vision to build a new city called Columbia on 15,000 acres of Howard County farmland and transformed the fairways and greens of a golf course into the Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore is the same man the world-renowned urban developer tapped to help the city of Homestead rise from the rumble and ruin of Andrew.

This is a first for Mr. Rouse's Enterprise Foundation, which builds affordable housing for the poor and improves residents' lives through access to job training and educational and child care services. In Homestead, Mr. Finley and his eight-person team are helping a community in need to find itself and develop a road map to secure its future.

It was a chance to rebuild "based on the sins of the past," and address the problems of the present -- lost jobs, inadequate housing, a shaken civic psyche.

Last fall, after a month spent simply listening to the people who live and work here as they struggled to see past the hurricane's devastation, the Enterprise team realized the challenge before them.

"It became clear our work was not going to be a result of the storm damage," says Mr. Finley, who recruited an engineer and three community planners to this South Florida town founded by homesteaders building a railroad to the Florida Keys.

"It had to do with rebuilding a city that had come undone over the last 40 years."

Elements of revival

Even before Andrew hit, this city of 27,000 was looking for a tonier image. Townhouses and condos had sprung up on a planned 3,300-acre golf and residential complex east of the Florida Turnpike. The city built a flamingo-pink stadium for the Cleveland Indians' spring training site. Antique dealers hoped to transform the 1950s-era downtown into a dealers' mecca.

But the hurricane forced Homestead to confront its past. Over the decades, an Air Force base, fueled by the Cold War, and tourists heading for the Florida Keys provided more jobs than the area's healthy agrarian economy. At the same time, the farm workers harvesting tomatoes, corn, mangoes and beans in Homestead became more ethnically diverse. Mexicans and Central Americans followed blacks into the fields and the city's forgotten neighborhoods.

Almost overnight, the flatland wedged between the Everglades and Biscayne Bay -- and life as South Floridians knew it -- changed. Andrew's pelting rains and battering winds flattened Homestead Air Force Base, plowed through fields, peeled roofs from houses, leveled hundreds of mobile homes and gutted apartment complexes.

Three weeks later, Jim Rouse, at the behest of Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr., surveyed the damage from the air. Initially, he wasn't sure he could help. But state and city officials -- and Mr. Rouse's wife, Patty, a co-founder of Enterprise -- pushed.

"She wouldn't let it rest," Mr. Rouse says of his wife.

The prospect of bringing the city back seemed daunting, even to this visionary. "But it had to begin somewhere, and it had to begin where we began, with Bill Finley, to get all the dope on the existing conditions and to find out what the people wanted," says Mr. Rouse.

Homestead's youthful and tireless city manager, Alex Muxo Jr., had seen Columbia, Md., "so I could relate to what could be done with a well-planned city, all the facets that make a community work."

Initially, not everyone was as convinced.

"When they first came to town, everybody said, 'What do they know about us? They're going to tell us what to do,' " recalls Ruth Campbell, the city's 72-year-old vice mayor. "But you know what? They showed us what we were, what we can do, and the choices have been up to community."

"What the hurricane has done," adds Mr. Muxo, the city manager, "is given us an opportunity to learn from 60 years of mistakes, properly plan areas of the community and also given us dollars to make an impact . . . state and federal funds that would not have been available to us if it were not for the storm."

Recovery among the ruins

For a long time, a popular bumper sticker in south Dade County has read: "I Survived Hurricane Andrew But the Recovery May Kill Me." Even today, 11 months after the storm caused $20 billion in damage to south Dade County and routed 45,000 people from their homes, Andrew's ruin remains, often within sight of the recovery it has spawned.

Driving south from Miami along the Florida Turnpike, the signs are there. Debris is neatly piled in the parking lot of the still-empty Cutler Ridge Mall. Windows in some houses remain covered with plywood and sentiments from the past: "Looters Will Be Shot Without Warning." Manuel Diaz Farms Inc. of Home

stead proclaims in a billboard, "We have returned." Another hopeful businessman offers: "Cash For Your Home -- As Is."

In the Homestead area, where the hurricane touched almost every structure, it's a patchwork of stalled dreams and renewed hope. The military has agreed to rebuild part of Homestead Air Force Base and retain two reserve units, which means about 2,000 jobs. But the city's new sports complex is without a tenant.

Houses have been refitted with new roofs, buildings have been repainted in tropical pastels, and yet stores in several shopping centers remain boarded up. The movie theaters are closed, but the bowling alley finally reopened. While reconstruction is under way at several battered apartment complexes, 2,800 people remain in mobile homes and trailers provided by federal officials.

Although the hurricane tore the garage bay doors from his Goodyear tire center, looters did the most damage to Jim Atkins' business. And yet, at the city's urging and with its help, Mr. Atkins opened the store two days later and ran "seven days a week, 24 hours a day" for 2 1/2 weeks, providing supplies and services to the public, the police, the government.

"The worst business decision I ever made was reopening," says Mr. Atkins, whose custom-built home along a canal in South Dade has not yet been rebuilt. But he adds: "When I looked at the devastation and saw what all these people were going through, I realized if I didn't do something. . . . You can't walk away. You would hate yourself."

In Mr. Atkins' office today is a pastel-colored sketch of how his business will look -- with canopy and columned facade -- in the Pioneer Commerce Park, the industrial business district proposed in the Enterprise team's recovery plan for Homestead.

As the head of the city's economic development board, Mr. Atkins has seen past attempts to revitalize the city's downtown stall. But the Enterprise plan goes beyond decorative lighting and pavement, ornamental street furniture and landscaping.

"We feel confident we have a blueprint for the city," says Mr.

Atkins. "Enterprise is world-famous. They do not deal in theory. They deal in facts."

The difficult details

When Bill Finley arrived in Homestead last September, almost a month after the hurricane hit, people were still standing in line for drinking water, tent cities housed the homeless, roof tiles covered the ground like confetti, and the city manager carried a gun on his hip.

The Enterprise staff took up residence in the back of an architect's office on Krome Avenue, the weary heart of the city's downtown. Almost immediately, they assembled a road map of the city: an aerial photo mural of every street and landmark in Homestead, from the refurbished Hungry Bear Sub Shop to the leveled Homestead Trailer Park.

They began filling a computer with the data needed to redesign and redevelop -- property ownership, zoning, land use, assessed value. Their work yielded more sobering facts about the 1,100-acre area designated as a community development district: lower property values, a declining middle class, a lack of affordable housing.

The team's work resulted in a five-year, $27 million plan to rehabilitate the historic downtown, create a business industrial park, build affordable, single-family homes in the western section of town, revitalize a commercial district in the city's predominantly black southwestern section and improve U.S. 1, the highway along which many area hotels are located.

"We're really community developers in the public interest," says Mr. Finley, Enterprise project manager.

The plan also includes samples of the Enterprise Foundation's signature efforts to improve not only living conditions but the lives of those it serves: a community center to serve the largely Hispanic migrant farm population, home ownership training and a neighborhood organization to ensure management and maintenance of rental properties.

To accomplish the task, the team proposed a community redevelopment agency that would have the power to acquire property, sell bonds and provide financing for projects.

The Enterprise proposal coincides with the city's overall strategy to rebuild "a better Homestead," which includes constructing a motor sports complex to house the Miami Grand Prix and transforming the military base into an aviation park.

It is an ambitious endeavor that may take more than bricks, mortar, money and the city's pioneer spirit to accomplish. For example, when an Enterprise staff member tried to interest a developer in a vacant building on Krome Avenue, the out-of-towner replied, "I'm really interested, but I'm going to wait until I see what the city's going to do."

Members of the black community, who were put off by a now-scrapped effort by the city to plunk a migrant housing complex down in their neighborhood, stress the need to include everyone in the discussions about a new Homestead.

"Everybody is working off a dream. This whole thing is dream-driven," says David Goodwyn, a landlord and president of the Southwest Business and Economic Development Association. "You can't allow an entire city to be dominated by one goal-focused set of dreams. . . . There's got to be a set of lTC dreams generated down here, too."

Mr. Finley understands the social, political and economic forces at work.

"My goal is to do things as fast as possible, because the city is hurting. It needs its spirits lifted and its assessed valuation lifted. If the program we're managing loses momentum, it will slow down badly or possibly fall," he says.

Homestead Mayor J. W. "Tad" DeMilly, 48, agrees. As long as the federal government lives up to its financial commitments to the city and the area, then "the biggest challenge is maintaining the energy levels and the levels of optimism," he says.

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