Miami County Commerce Center’s Grand Opening was shadowed by a tale of resilience and community spirit as local business owners and cultural enthusiasts gathered to witness not only the advent of a new economic chapter but also the comeback of a cherished cultural event. All eyes were on Jim Hammond, a local puppet master, who had gone through a lot when floods hit the area hard in April.

Hammond is known for their fantastic work on The Lion King Broadway show. But after the floods, they saw their home and studio in Edgewood destroyed. The disaster took away half of the puppets designated for the 14th Florida Day of the Dead celebration, including Catrina, a papier-mâché mask that had become a symbol of Hammond’s alter ego. “She’s my alter ego. I’ve worn her at over 70 events, and she’s helped me connect with a lot of who I am,” Hammond recounted, their voice showing how deeply they felt this loss. 

This loss was so heavy that Hammond almost decided to stop making art in South Florida altogether. They even sent a message to a friend saying, “Well, this is when I quit and retire from being an artist in South Florida.” But then, the people around them showed their love and support. The Community Foundation gave Hammond $10,000 to help them start over, and the team from the South Florida Symphony came to help clean up. This support gave Hammond the strength and hope they needed to start creating again. 

Hammond decided to keep the Day of the Dead celebration going after some heartening talks with two local leaders, Genia Ellis, president and CEO of Riverwalk, and Jarred John of Damn Good Hospitality. They both had an inspiring message: “This community needs this event. This community needs your creativity and your energy. We’re going to do whatever it takes to help you get through this year and rebuild your studio and rebuild this event.” 

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This decision reflects what the Miami County Commerce Center stands for: people working together and cultural events making the economy and community stronger. The celebration has grown beyond its original spot in FAT Village, thanks to partnerships that allowed it to flourish at Esplanade Park and Revolution Live.

John, who’s played a big part in making the festival bigger, really believes in the power of this event: “It brings such a strong cultural and creative experience for all involved,” he stated, reflecting on the event’s rise to national recognition.

This year’s festival will be different, with not as many puppets as before, but the essence will be the same. There will be a stage for families at Esplanade Park, traditional dancers, and a puppet parade that ends with a big, lively street party. “It’ll be a very different event,” admitted Hammond, “but have the same spirit and playfulness and aesthetic, but instead of having 40 puppets, we’re going to have a dozen—and that’s okay.”

The Day of the Dead event that Jim Hammond leads is indeed much more than just a gathering; it reflects the community’s power to come together and turn tough times into a chance to unite and heal. Hammond recalled, “Part of the whole conversation of Day of the Dead is life is about transitions,” sharing the deeper meaning behind the event. “And this is a transition not only for the event and me as an artist, but it’s a transition for everyone who suffered through that flood.”

With the Miami County Commerce Center kicking off a fresh start, Hammond’s story, shared by the community, became a powerful message of what people can overcome. It tells us about overcoming loss, finding strength, and keeping hope alive—a story that touched the hearts of business owners and guests at the grand opening.