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Homestead base's return is "like a rebirth of a city'

Homestead Air Force Base, ravaged by Hurricane Andrew and threatened by Pentagon budget cuts, is about to be reborn.

No matter that the base will be far smaller.

The rebirth, celebrated a few weeks early by a visit last week from Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, brought cheer to a town virtually flattened by Andrew in August 1992.

Widnall, on a tour of military bases being restructured, said Homestead will be a model for base realignment throughout the country.

"What happens here is crucial," she said. "Other communities affected by closures and realignment will look to Homestead for ideas and inspiration."

Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo said the return of the base "is a real milestone."

"Now we can see something concrete," Muxo said. "We're less than a month away from the (Reservists) Wing coming back."

Hundreds attended Friday's dedication of an 80-foot flagpole high enough to be seen by nearby communities economically tied to the base's existence. An F-4 Phantom II fighter jet knocked off its pedestal by Andrew's winds also was reinstalled.

"She seemed to be down for the count. Like the rest of South Florida, she has risen," said Col. Rodney L. Bates, of the 31st Fighter Wing, an active duty outfit, which will be leaving the base March 31.

On March 26, 20 F-16 Fighting Falcon jets will arrive at the base, more than 1{ years after they were evacuated for the storm.

Two Reserve units, the 482nd Fighter Wing and the 301st Rescue Squadron, will eventually return to the base, which sustained $500-million in damage. U.S. Customs once again will operate from the base.

"The return of a military presence is important, particularly in light of what's happening today in Cuba," said Jim Atkins of the Homestead-Florida City Chamber of Commerce.

"I'm obviously happy," he said. "The economic impact to the community is great. . . . Things are looking up. There's a lot of people coming back."

The base once pumped $480-million into the local economy yearly and accounted for 8,700 jobs _ 4,700 active military.

Almost all of those jobs were reassigned to other bases when the storm rolled over Homestead.

When the reduced base is fully operational in the next year or two, it will employ 600 to 700 full-time military personnel, with about 1,000 reservists, Muxo said.

Once the jobs left, it didn't make much sense for businesses to rebuild; areas around the base look liked a ghost town.

"It's like a rebirth of a city," said Linda Miles, a bartender at the Afterburner just outside the base. "They (the base's residents) were going to leave, and it was sad."

Widnall said she was impressed by the community's work to bring the base back.

"Things can bog down, but that has not happened in this community," Widnall said.

Military personnel and retirees who relied on the now-closed hospital at the base, will have access to local civilian medical care paid for by the military. That has been a principal concern of many veterans living on the fringes of the base.

Muxo said operations at the base will eventually include a mix of civilian and military operations.

"It's a real accomplishment for the community," he said. "You're finally starting to see your work pay off."