USF neighbors want improvements, not promises
TAMPA - Life near the university doesn't remain constant or steady. Hundreds of rental properties see people come and go. Sometimes it seems the businesses can turn over just as quickly. And while many people associate certain neighborhoods, particularly the area once derogatorily nicknamed "Suitcase City,'' with crime, that ebbs and flows, too, says Patricia Mabry, who has lived 28 years in and around the area. A spate of arrests might calm crime for a while, but that's a mixed blessing, she said. "You see a change, the more of our kids are locked away," said Mabry, 43. "That's not what we want to happen. "We want more positive things put in the neighborhood that will slow the aggression down that these kids harbor," Mabry said. "A lot of these kids who get in trouble aren't bad kids. They sometimes make bad choices. That's where mentoring comes in. That's what they need."Such discussion has started in earnest since Hillsborough County commissioners voted recently to begin exploring ways to transform the residential and commercial neighborhoods around the University of South Florida. Backers of the idea have a straightforward argument: An area that's home to a major university, cutting-edge medical facilities and large employers like Busch Gardens should be an economic juggernaut and a sought-out place to live, not a place known mostly for its crime and cheap rents. Those who call the neighborhoods home say they welcome the interest and conversation, though many of the long-timers say they've heard such grandiose plans before but haven't seen concrete results. In the 12 years Dominick Germain has lived in the area, both his car and his home have been burglarized. He says any attention will help, but it has to be sincere. "Most of the time politicians come with a plan and they don't do it," said Germain, 31. "They wait for so long. Time passes and it never happens." "We need help any kind of way," he said. "It would be a big change. It would change the system." Three years ago, Jermane Cross opened Cross Cuttas, a barbershop on 30th Street. He saw potential in the proximity to the university, the mall and entertainment sites. But business has been somewhat of a disappointment, Cross said. The storefront church has stayed, but many of the stores in the strip mall have changed hands multiple times. "If you drive down 30th (Street) you'd think it's an abandoned plaza," Cross said. "This plaza is come and go. It isn't strategically planned to have businesses feed off each other. When you see a lot of businesses come and go, it isn't helping anyone out.'' Wendell Fung, a bank underwriter, moved into the area a few months ago and rents a two-bedroom apartment for less than $600 a month. He has found the area to be better than advertised but knows lots of people don't share his opinion. "Change the image, that's the biggest thing," said Fung, 48. "Nobody is going to invest in an area with a negative stigma attached to it." The priority should be to attract working-class families, Fung said. Attract them, he said, and momentum will build. "It's basic economics," Fung said. "Get them an incentive to move here. Once you build the base, businesses are going to move in. You aren't going to invest in a rundown neighborhood." Much of the area's image problem is related to crime, particularly in certain neighborhoods. While crime statistics show a steady decline over the last three years, there still are some alarming numbers. There were 316 residential burglaries and 147 vehicle burglaries last year in the area bordered by Fowler Avenue to the south, Bearss Avenue to the north, Interstate 275 to the west and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to the east. Eighty-five robberies were reported, along with 78 stolen vehicles, according to Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office statistics. As executive director and chief executive officer for the University Area Community Development Corp., Dan Jurman knows the problems the area faces, including crime, poverty and lack of access to health services. The organization helps people with job training, recreational programs, arts, education, financial and after-school and summer programs. "There are so many critical needs in the area that we serve," Jurman said. Still, he's optimistic. He says this latest effort has the right goal – improve conditions for everyone, not just businesses – and says organizers seem to be trying hard to bring everyone into the planning process. "I'm hopeful this is the right philosophy at the right time," said Jurman, 42. "If we can keep that momentum. … We have a chance of moving this forward. "The challenges are there with all the shareholders," he said. "That's the way to do it, not leave any of your neighborhoods behind."
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