TAMPA - Mayor Bob Buckhorn is rebooting his effort to purge North Tampa of derelict houses after his original effort, known as the Nehemiah Project, ran aground this spring.
The Nehemiah Project began in January with much fanfare. Buckhorn even climbed aboard an excavator and took the first ceremonial swipe at an abandoned house. He promised to remove 51 houses over six months.
The name and number are taken from the biblical prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem's walls in 51 days.
Nearly seven months after the Nehemiah Project began, the city has torn down just 11 houses. Eleven more await demolition.
At the same time, the city has expanded the project to take in 86 houses as far north as Bougainvillea Avenue. Sixty-four of the properties are in some phase of negotiation with the city, rehabilitation or demolition by their owners.
At the time, the Nehemiah Project was Buckhorn's most prominent attempt to eliminate blight in some of Tampa's poorest neighborhoods. Buckhorn described the abandoned and derelict homes as "a cancer in our neighborhoods."
January's announcement marked the beginning of what has become months of focus on property owners who flout the city's rules against illegal dumping, construction permits and poor property maintenance.
This week, city code officers began a monthlong sweep through North and East Tampa targeting what Buckhorn called "the worst of the worst." Crews are working seven days a week.
The Nehemiah Project ran into trouble May 14 when the company hired by the city, Johnson's Excavation Services Inc. of Plant City, defaulted on its $200,000 contract.
Company president Donathan Johnson told the city his company was losing money on the work. Continuing the demolitions already underway wouldn't be "financially feasible," Johnson wrote.
"He wanted out of the contract," Code Enforcement chief Jake Slater said this week. "It was more than he could handle. So he walked out on our contract right in the middle."
Slater said the cost of treating the properties for asbestos proved too high for the company, which was the low bidder on the contract.
Last week, the Tampa City Council approved hiring Magnum Demolition to pick up where Johnston left off. Magnum was the next-lowest bidder.
Magnum will be paid $330,000 for work through Jan. 9, 2014, with the option to renew its contract after that. The payment will be split into $150,000 from the current budget, which expires Sept. 30, and $180,000 from the 2014 budget that starts Oct. 1.
"Now that the contractor's up to speed, we ought to do better," Buckhorn said. "Had the (original) contractor stayed on task, we would have been significantly ahead of the game."
Buckhorn said the Nehemiah Project also has encountered some resistance from the owners of the targeted properties.
That's just the nature of an effort like Nehemiah, he said.
"It's always more complicated that it appears or than you hope," he said.