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Community Partnerships Turn Tampa's "Suitcase City" into "Showcase City"

By Tom Flanigan

Tallahassee, FL – Is it possible to turn blighted, high crime areas into safe, livable communities? Over the past five years, a pilot program seems to have made a big difference in what had been a nasty neighborhood in Tampa. There's now an effort underway to take that success story to other Florida cities.

You'll find it a few blocks south of downtown Tampa, encircling the University of South Florida. The neighborhood started off as wall-to-wall student housing, with lots of cheap apartment buildings. Over the years, it deteriorated into a decrepit slum with the highest crime rate in Hillsborough County. The area's population was so transient, it became known as "Suitcase City." Julian Garcia says the area had nowhere to go but up.

"It was a community that needed everything. Since it was built for students (and) adjacent to the university, there was no public transportation to speak of. There were no sidewalks. There were no parks for kids, because it was assumed that everyone living in this community was going to the university and didn't need these things."

Garcia heads the University Area Community Development Corporation. It was created five years ago in hopes the neighborhood could somehow be saved. Today, Garcia says that neighborhood is a very different place.

"We brought in a sheriff's substation, a sub-command center. We've been able to bring in a career high school, a magnet elementary school, a social service center, a health center we keep expanding (our community center). We've also brought in a Junior Achievement center, a mass transit center, over twelve-hundred street lights, sidewalks on at least one side of almost every street in the community."

So how did this seeming miracle happen? Did the city or county swoop in with millions of dollars and an army of contractors? Was it the result of a big federal grant? Garcia admits there was a modest amount of government investment, but the real impetus for the project was much more grassroots in nature.

"Change does not exist, will not exist, over time if it's change from the outside. It has to be change from the inside, and the way you create that is you create local leaders who can work with each other to improve their community."

That means involving every existing neighborhood resource, the business community, churches, civic groups, and letting those organizations make the decisions and do the heavy lifting. Tampa Republican State Senator Victor Crist says this is the only lasting way to turn a blighted community around.

"We need to overcome the complacency that's out there in the general public. We need to help people to understand that volunteerism and sweat equity (have) a value, and use that in conjunction with whatever dollars are available for whatever program or service in a holistic, unified approach to community revitalization."

Crist insists the concept can be just as effective in revitalizing other low rent, high crime Florida urban areas. He says he'll be pushing that idea during the upcoming lawmaking session, because, despite their many problems, these neighborhoods all have a secret weapon.

"A great resource of people who care, that don't know or understand how they can make a difference, that need to work together with those that do to identify the real issues, prioritize those issues, identify the possible resources, harness those resources and partner."

That's the winning combination, Crist says, that's turning Tampa's "Suitcase City" into "Showcase City."