On March 26, 1961, under the guidance of the Catholic Church, a plane arrived from Cuba carrying a group of boys who were escaping the coming wrath of Communism that was being instituted by Fidel Castro. This rescue movement was dubbed “Operation Peter Pan” and would bring in thousands of youths at the request of concerned parents who were forced to remain in their homeland.
That day would mark a new way of life for 15 year old Rene Infante and his younger brother, 8 year old Jose.
That forty-five minute flight would change the lives of the Infante brothers. Arriving in Miami, they were housed in barracks’ for 3 months while awaiting a foster family willing to take both of them. Rene refused to be separated from his brother but finally the Conners family in Columbus Ohio opened their home to both boys. Immediately the boys bonded with the Conners’ clan…could it be that both families had come from islands, Cuba and Ireland, or that they shared the same faith and values?
The Conners family had children of their own and Rene became a lifelong buddy of John who was exactly his age. All attended St. Charles Prep School where Rene, an avid soccer player in Cuba, was introduced to football. He was a natural and excelled to a level where colleges began to take notice of him in his junior year. Legendary Coach Woody Hayes even came to scout him. However football was not to be when opposing schools filed a case with the High School Federation claiming that Rene was recruited as a player and that was illegal. Because of this, Rene did not get a chance to compete his senior year. But there were even greater changes in his life as his Mother was granted permission to leave Cuba and relocate in Miami. Rene and Jose joined their Mother in sunny Florida in his senior year. He enrolled in Christopher Columbus High School and was allowed to work off his $25.00 per month tuition doing cleaning and lawn care at the school. Rene feels that his time at Columbus centered him as a man of character, understanding that hard work and ethics will bring you success.
He graduated and entered the labor force. He became the sole support of the family since his parents had separated. His first job was with “Stand By Labor,” which led to a contract cleaning the Orange Bowl after games. His boss recognized his work ethic and never fail attitude, both in his work and leading the employees. When the Orange Bowl was sold his old boss encouraged Rene to open his own cleaning business with Jose. Initial start up funds came from his now retiring employer. Eventually Rene turned the business over to his brother who still runs it today.
Rene headed south to the Homestead area. He returned to his “roots” harvesting and selling yucca, malanga and other tropical vegetables. But destiny had more in store for Rene as an old building came on the market just north of 248th street on 137th avenue. The building had been a packing house then converted into a boat manufacturing plant. It was spacious, perfect for his new dream, a Flea Market. The market was an amazing success that grew beyond expectations until Hurricane Andrew changed the face of South Dade. Now the question of doubt entered, could Rene resurrect his fallen dream.
The Creation of Bargain Town
As the bulldozers pushed through the mountains of debris at the
destroyed Flea Market a new opportunity opened the door to the
resurrection and relocation of what was to become Bargain Town. The building of the present site of the Flea Market was also a
packinghouse in its glory days but was now vacant as a glass and screen company moved to a location on the edge of Florida City.
The owner of the building was Buddy Bass and he wanted to sell the
building. Due to the proximity of the 2 buildings Buddy and Rene
formed a strong friendship. One day, while hearing the bulldozers,
Buddy went to Rene’s location to survey the damage. He was taken aback by what he saw, how massive the hurri-
cane damage was. Bass suggested that Rene abandon the project and buy his building on U.S. 1. After all it had escaped
major damage plus it was empty. Rene was in dire financial condition
and knew he could not afford a new location however Buddy promised to make a suitable deal and within days a workable contract was presented and signed. To this day Rene regards Buddy Bass as an angel in disguise. Rene exclaimed, “Buddy Bass was instrumental in my
success.” Now, on any given weekend you will find some 500 vendors
catering to 30,000 to 38,000 visitors each weekend and the numbers continue to grow. And Rene tries to mentor those vendors as he was mentored by Buddy Bass. He wants to help and give opportunity to those new business people when he recognizes the same drive and commitment to success that he had starting out.
Metro Rail Heads South
If South Dade was to develop, Rene knew that public transportation would be necessary. He worked closely with then Mayor Alex Penelas in drafting out a plan but it was put on hold due to lack of funding. An estimated budget of $40 million dollars was simply out of reach or was it? Research led Rene to members of the Federal Government who were in charge of allocation funds to States in need of special projects for development. Several Congressmen visited South Dade and after a tour they were convinced that South Florida needed a rapid transit system that would end in Florida City. Behold, $40 million dollars was allocated and the project became a reality.
Rene has seen great success, but stresses that none of it would have been possible without the love and encouragement from his wife of 45 years, Dora. He is also very proud of his two children.
The name of the Flea Market is no longer Bargain Town but has changed to Redland Market Village. The management of the Flea Market has been turned over to Rene Jr., allowing Rene Sr. time to handle some aggressive civic challenges.
When asked, “So what’s next?” Rene took a deep breath and took the interview to a higher level talking about the future of South Dade while touching on his role as a community leader. He informed, that 137th avenue is about to be expanded from the Homestead Speedway through Kendall Drive. Not only would that elevate some of the rush hour traffic but it would provide another evacuation route in case of a hurricane or any type of impending disaster.
South Dade will continue to see increasing growth but with progress comes problems.
“We will be holding meetings with cities starting at Palmetto Bay through Florida City forming a Economic Development Program that would help promote the whole region with educational and economic growth.”
Rene stated that economic development in South Dade relies on education, “Everyone needs to feel welcome, while making money and stopping the cycle of poverty. That’s how I felt welcomed at Columbus, and everyone should have that opportunity.”
Taking a moment to smile, Rene opened his heart to his passionate dream of developing a Charter School to preserve and promote agriculture as a career for students in South Dade. “Plans are underway right now.” He expects approval within months and hopes to open the school in his main building the following year. About 500 students ranging from grades 1 through 8 is the goal. Then each following year an additional grade level will be added. He explained, “It’s more then just educating the children it’s working with the parents as well. Creating better paying jobs, improving work ethics, and preserving agriculture would be part of the program.”
One last surprise will soon be added, a farm-to-table culinary school that will work alongside a multi-cultural farmers market on the premises. Rene wants to be as inclusive as possible and already has plans to bring in Mexican, Peruvian, Columbian and Argentina vendors.
I thought for a moment as we ended the interview and added “that’s perfect, CULTIVATE, COACH, COOK AND CONSUME!