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Homestead Air Force Base: Mainstay of the economy wiped out

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2002

In size and economic impact, it was Hurricane Andrew's biggest victim.

In size and economic impact, it was Hurricane Andrew's biggest victim.

The 1,632-acre Homestead Air Force Base was flattened, wiping out 7,500 jobs and a $400-million-a-year mainstay of the Miami-Dade economy.

Then-President George Bush vowed to rebuild it, but Congress balked. So when President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he promised to replace the lost jobs by converting the base into a commercial airport.

Administration officials boasted that the transfer to local officials would become a model for redeveloping other closed military bases around the country, a promise that turned into a bitter joke.

County commissioners leased the base to a company with no experience in the airport business. Run by members of Miami's politically powerful Latin Builders Association, the company proposed an airport that would see more than 200,000 planes a year by 2014, more than double the number of Air Force flights.

Initially that was fine with the Air Force, which in 1994 said the project would have a negligible environmental impact on nearby Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park.

But environmental groups, with financial backing from wealthy Key Largo landowners worried about their property values, contended that noise and pollution would ruin the two parks. In 1997, they persuaded the military to take another look.

The second review, completed in Clinton's last days, found that other options could provide greater environmental protection than an airport. By then, Congress and the Florida Legislature had approved the first stage of an $8-billion plan to restore the Everglades. That helped tip the balance.

So the Air Force agreed to hand over more than 700 acres of the base to the county -- but not the runway. That will continue to be used by the Air Force Reserve and other federal agencies.

The County Commission and airport developers sued, but the commission dropped the suit in December, agreeing to the Air Force's terms.

In a recent newsletter to constituents, Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who represents Homestead, wrote that she expects the county to finally take possession of the property this fall "and shortly thereafter there will be a developer's conference to solicit ideas. . . . Ultimately it is my goal to have the project put out for competitive bidding."

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