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    Going beyond Florida Avenue

    The Old Palm Harbor Community Association hopes to take on communitywide issues, not just business ones, to foster a better place to live.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 7, 2002


    PALM HARBOR -- Chatting over sodas at a local restaurant with five like-minded neighbors, Scott Fisher had a simple explanation for why the old Palm Harbor area needed another civic group.

    The unincorporated area as a whole has lacked a voice, he says, with the bulk of the community resources mostly going to the businesses on Florida Avenue, the main downtown drag.

    They hope to change that.

    "We are trying to expand out and encompass the entire old Palm Harbor area," said Fisher, a 43-year-old computer programmer who has lived in Palm Harbor since 1993.

    Fisher and a few others have banded together to form the Old Palm Harbor Community Association, a nonprofit group that was incorporated in May. According to its bylaws, the purpose of the organization is to promote the "general well-being and improvement of the quality of life for residents and businesses in the old Palm Harbor community."

    The group defines that area as going from Sutherland Bayou east to Belcher Road and from Delaware Avenue south to Virginia Avenue. The association plans to ask residents and business owners in the community to list their top five concerns for the area.

    Based on the answers, the group will determine which issues to tackle.

    "We aren't trying to create the issues," said Fisher, the group's president. "We are just trying to find out what the community is concerned about."

    So far, the group has about a dozen members and hopes to continue attracting more as word gets out. The concerns that the members initially are planning to address are redevelopment issues, the need for additional sidewalks and more green space and crime prevention.

    Some members of the fledgling organization say they were attracted to it because of their disappointment with how another group, the Old Palm Harbor Partnership, has represented the area. The partnership is the legal entity that operates the Palm Harbor Main Street organization, which is part of a national program designed to promote the downtown area.

    "All these other associations ... they do nothing for me," said Demers Den owner Rick Clowes, who has clashed over parking with Pinellas County officials and some neighboring businesses.

    Like Clowes, several current or prospective members of the Old Palm Harbor Community Association have taken issue in the past with the way county officials or other groups have approached redevelopment issues or community projects.

    "They are all pushing their own agendas but no one is concerned about the community as a whole," Clowes said.

    The leaders of the Main Street program disagree with that.

    The Main Street group was designed after a national model aimed at improving a defined area and then attracting businesses to it by creating a commerce-friendly atmosphere, said Walt Blenner, president of the Main Street association. In Palm Harbor, that defined area is mostly on and immediately around Florida Avenue.

    The improvements to that street will have a "ripple effect" that benefits not only the businesses but also all of the residents, Blenner said.

    "We are here to represent the community as a whole, and if our focus has to do with Florida Avenue ... then that's our main focus, but ultimately it will benefit all the businesses and residents of the downtown area," Blenner said.

    The group welcomes residents and business owners to be members, and its meetings are open to the public and end with an open forum where anyone can speak, he said. In fact, the Palm Harbor partnership was designed partly to be a liaison between residents and the county.

    "It is true that Main Street is pretty much dedicated to a commerce position, but we also request and get a lot of feedback from the community as a whole," said Don Hurt, vice president of the Main Street group. "The people of Palm Harbor have representation in the county as a result of the Main Street association. Everybody has an opportunity to stand up and voice their opinions."

    The new group does not oppose the Main Street association's efforts, Fisher said. It's just that the Main Street group seems to focus too much on the businesses on Florida Avenue, he says, ignoring the rest of the area.

    "I don't want to talk negative about the Main Street association because they are doing some good things," Fisher said. "We are not against Main Street, but we just want them to be more inclusive instead of exclusive."

    There are already a handful of civic groups that represent Palm Harbor, but "it's the same little clique running everything in Palm Harbor," said Roger Gambert, 66, a Palm Harbor resident who is considering joining the new group.

    Among other things, the new group plans to take on the issue of higher taxes, now that Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt has announced his budget plans. Spratt is proposing an increase in the property, cable and phone taxes next year for the 285,000 residents of unincorporated Pinellas County, which includes Palm Harbor.

    The group would like to talk to county officials about the reasoning behind the proposed increase and whether there is more to come.

    "We are concerned this will snowball every year," Fisher said.

    Fisher also recently represented the Old Palm Harbor Community Association at an organizational meeting of a new countywide group, the Unincorporated County Association of Pinellas. That group seeks to become a lobbying group on behalf of residents in unincorporated Pinellas.

    Meanwhile, other business owners wonder if there will be overlap between what the new group plans to do and what the Main Street association already does.

    "Is it redundant?" said Hurt, who owns the Your Claim To Frame shop on Nebraska Avenue. "I think so. Do we need another organization? Well, the people who started it certainly feel that way ... so more power to them."

    -- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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