USF area to get makeover
TAMPA - Of all the blighted areas in Hillsborough County, perhaps the most notorious is the area just west of the University of South Florida once known derisively as "Suitcase City." Despite millions of dollars invested there by federal, state and local governments, many of the neighborhoods between Fletcher and Fowler avenues are still dogged by crime and poverty. Local officials think the area's problems have hindered efforts to turn the university area into a biomedical and technological mecca like the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Silicon Valley in California. "We're a Third World neighborhood in a first-class city," said Dan Jurman, executive director of the University Area Community Development Corp. Now, however, a broad coalition that includes government officials, economic development experts, businessmen and neighborhood groups is developing a plan to address economic, aesthetic and public-safety issues around the university."Probably some of our biggest assets are in the university area, but they can't really succeed until you address all those things," Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said Wednesday during a break in the commission meeting. Minutes earlier, commissioners voted 6-0 to support a proposal by Commissioner Victor Crist to create an economic development district in the area between Interstate 275 and I-75, and from Sligh Avenue up to New Tampa. Merrill is to bring back a plan in 45 days that will identify the area's challenges and strengths, and how the strengths can be leveraged to finance recovery. Crist and Merrill have been working on the problem for months, though on different tracks. Crist said he has talked to "dozens and dozens" of organizations with interests in the area, including businesses and officials from Tampa and Temple Terrace. "Everybody shares a common vision of an improved quality of life," Crist said. "Everyone wants less crime, more jobs and more things to do." Crist envisions transportation improvements, redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods and development of empty or underutilized land. He would employ many special financing districts, where appreciation of property tax values would be plowed back into the development area Crist calls "Innovation Destination." Merrill has been meeting with the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., and university and business officials to create a "Destination City" around USF. The group has been concentrating on the area from Busch Boulevard to just north of the university, and bordered on the east and west by Florida Avenue and I-75, respectively. The group will meet Friday in a closed session to discuss the strategy. Both Crist and the Innovation City group are hoping to attract private equity, as well as state and federal grants, for redevelopment and infrastructure improvements. They think the area's assets — including USF, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital — will attract entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. "But it can only be done if we're able to stabilize communities around it by lowering crime, raising disposable income and improving the quality of life," Crist said. Rick Homans, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp., said the two plans should complement, not compete, with each other. "We are all one group heading in the same direction," Homans said. "We've all been talking and learning from each other. Everybody is in sync with each of the concepts, vision, enthusiasm and a sense of urgency."
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