HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Driving out of Miami on the Florida Turnpike, you leave the city behind and enter a kind of twilight zone.
It used to be a town of 28,000 people focused on farming and a busy military base. Then Hurricane Andrew blew away most of the houses and stores and flattened Homestead Air Force Base. The population dropped by 12,000 literally overnight. And Homestead that day could have died.
From the turnpike you see the giant empty spaces where buildings used to be and fields of what look to be telephone poles, which are the branch-less remains of evergreen and palm trees. Homestead is rebuilding itself, but it has chosen an unconventional cornerstone: The community is staking its future on race cars and a racetrack.
Homestead is the developer and owner of the first superspeedway to open in the United States in the last 20 years, a $61 million complex built on 344 acres on the east side of town that will hold its first major race Sunday. Banners along the turnpike direct you to the Homestead Motorsports Complex, home of the Miami Grand Prix, a race for Indianapolis-style cars on a track that rises like an island amid bean and potato fields.
"There are those who have vision," says Tad DeMilly, the mayor, about the choice of a racetrack, "and those who watch the parade go by."
"Homestead will never be the same," says Gil Scott, director of Community Development and Planning for the Homestead Economic Rebuilding Organization. "We're going to have visitors because of that motor sports park. Sixty thousand a day, visiting our community."
The town has in recent decades served as little more than a sort of inglorious pit stop, a break in the bleak, flat scenery between Miami and Key West. You drive by and glance at migrant workers working in fields of vegetables, and usually keep driving.
There are no beaches, no major hotels. There are no inner city canals bordered with mansions; Homestead has never been confused with Miami Beach. It was neither a tourist destination nor a nostalgia-inducing slice of the Old South.
The local economy has never fully recovered from Andrew. Homestead still lacks most of its old middle class, which never returned after the storm. It has a state-of-the-art major league baseball training park but lacks a major league tenant. It is in need of a sign that says, "Downtown, next right."
You can find U.S. 1, the thoroughfare to Key West, lined with strip malls and small hotels. But you have to look harder to find Krome Avenue, the local main street, five traffic lights away.
Linn Krutulis, a pastoral assistant at Krome Avenue's First Baptist Church, remembers seeing it the day after Andrew hit: "You have to understand -- you couldn't even find your house. Everything was simply gone.
"But the day after the storm, driving through all the devastation, and coming to Krome, where all the palm trees were gone and destruction was everywhere you looked, coming down this street and looking up and being able to still see the steeple of this church, well, it was a great source of relief."
The street is once again shaded by palm trees. There are art galleries, two full blocks of antique dealers plus a choice of restaurants and the mix of establishments that make for a healthy downtown -- hardware stores, city offices, clothing and furniture stores.
'Garden of Eden'
"When Henry Morrison Flagler built his railroad to Homestead in 1904, it was the Garden of Eden," says Bill Timmeny, president of the Main Street Committee. Flagler was the financier whose Florida East Coast Railroad opened south Florida to development, and Flagler began the building boom that has never stopped.
"It's still the Garden of Eden," Mr. Timmeny says. "The Everglades are still here, Biscayne National Park, the architecture, the history -- it's all still here."
He has opened a restaurant, Flagler's Station. Two blocks away is a newly built community college, painted with the farm community in mind. Mr. Scott, the development director, describes the startingly bright color scheme as "John Deere green, Allis Chalmers orange, Farm-All red and Ford tractor blue."
"Homestead is really a great place and our committee is working hard to bring back a depressed area," Mr. Timmeny says. "There is no reason for it to be depressed. Thirteen million tourists go through here every year. We've just got to get them to stop."
The Homestead Motorsports Complex is supposed to persuade them to turn off U.S. 1.
The city estimates that the racetrack will bring $100 million a year to the local economy, while Mr. Scott says that thanks to the track he is already holding talks with major hotel chains about expanding to Homestead.
"We've learned about patience and positioning yourself to take advantage of opportunities," Mr. Scott says. "We're doing that in terms of the racetrack. There are business opportunities because of it."
Looking for a quick boost
It's also the town's only realistic hope for a quick boost. The vegetable farms and fruit groves remain a major industry but are being pinched by suburban development. Homestead Air Force Base is now Homestead Air Reserve Base. It employed 7,500 people at its peak but now has 500. Gone are the jet fighter wing, the hospital, golf course and 1,600 housing units.
"Right after the hurricane, I wanted everything to be back the way it was," says Laura Dermarderosian-Smith, a reserve technical sergeant with the 93rd Fighter Squadron. "But some people chose to leave."
"I'm glad the motor sports facility is here. I'm glad because it helps to get Homestead on its feet. We were constantly being dumped on, like Homestead wasn't much of anything."
Not everyone is confident the track will make a difference.
Nancy Allen, director of Tools for Change, and Cameron Davis, who operates an antique store, say that when the racetrack held its inaugural event, few of the visitors made their way from the track to downtown. They compared it to getting stood up for the prom.
Ed Brown, who owns the Royal Barber Shop on Krome Avenue, thinks the only businesses that will benefit are restaurants, hotels and bars. "We don't have enough restaurants to feed 60,000 people," he says. "We don't have enough rooms to house 60,000 people."
Mayor DeMilly suggests that such shortages represent opportunities for growth. Homestead is eager to step out of the twilight zone into brighter light.
And a sign directing people downtown has already been approved.