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    Neighborhood experts share secrets of revival

    By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 8, 2002

    TAMPA -- They called it the "Dust Bowl," a few blocks in College Hill where the wind kicked up torrents of sand but never moved the drug dealers. In one of the bars, violence erupted so often, residents called it the "Bucket of Blood."

    But now a spiffy coin laundry anchors that patch of East Tampa. Customers snack on waffle cones while they wait, thanks to a new ice cream shop.

    And the "Bucket of Blood?" It's been replaced by a $500,000 youth center.

    "Not even the police wanted to come here," said Chloe Coney, an East Tampa booster who showcased the area Saturday to neighborhood advocates from across Florida. "Now it's testimony to taking back the neighborhood."

    The visit was part of the sixth annual Florida Neighborhoods Conference, which drew about 1,000 people.

    On Friday, participants attended seminars in the Tampa Convention Center, taking notes on everything from how to write grants to how to battle absentee landlords. On Saturday, they clambered onto buses for neighborhood tours.

    The goal: See what those neighborhoods are doing, and put the ideas to use back home.

    When it comes to tips, attendees should "steal freely," said Mike Dove, St. Petersburg's deputy mayor for neighborhoods.

    Along with tips came advice: Don't be shy.

    "You want to be a proactive, functioning thorn in the side of everyone," said Bill Doherty, Tampa's code enforcement manager.

    Participants liked what they heard.

    Daty Logan-Montgomery drove from Jacksonville, where she is a past president of the Pine Bluff neighborhood, an enclave of duplex homes near the University of North Florida.

    The problem there is college students who pile beer bottles in carports, let trash cans rattle and do heaven knows what to the interiors of their houses.

    St. Petersburg officials told 80 people in a workshop on code enforcement that they have a program that requires most rental units to be inspected before new tenants move in. The idea is to prevent rental housing from becoming a hell hole.

    "Jacksonville doesn't have that," Logan-Montgomery said, promising to lobby her city council when she returned home.

    Tampa officials gave her hope, too.

    This year, Tampa made code enforcement violations a criminal act, becoming one of the first cities in Florida to do so, said Doherty, the code enforcement manager.

    Now people who own trashy lots, abandoned cars or vermin-ridden homes can be charged with misdemeanors, which can lead to small fines or even short jail sentences. Since March, 80 people in Tampa have been arrested for code violations.

    "There's a mood in the community that that's what we need to do," Doherty said.

    Saturday, the lessons came from the streets.

    Attendees divided into 10 groups for tours. Each went to a different neighborhood.

    In New Tampa, they visited Hunter's Green, a community of 1,500 homes set against 600 acres of lakes and woods. In Tampa Heights, they drove past restored, century-old houses. In Ybor, they watched a cigar maker hand roll stogies.

    In East Tampa, they saw sharp contrasts.

    The effort there is spearheaded by the nonprofit Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa. In 10 years, it has funnelled $20-million in public and private money into the College Park, Ponce de Leon and Belmont Heights neighborhoods, said Coney, the organization's president.

    The group's motto: "Brick by brick."

    Coney spoke as the bus pulled up to the East Tampa Business Center, a strip mall on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with six new businesses, including a boutique, a bakery and a print shop.

    Grant money allowed Coney's organization to give the business owners affordable lease deals and small loans. "We nurture these businesses," Coney said.

    Later, the bus pulled into Osborne Landing, a 43-unit apartment complex. A few blocks away, sagging homes are boarded up and riddled with graffiti. But here there are palms, a wrought-iron fence and income-adjusted rents.

    "Ohhhh," the passengers said as they broke into applause.

    The complex is the result of a partnership between the Corporation to Develop Communities, Bank of America and a nonprofit developer.

    "Everyone calls it a rose in a desert," Coney said.

    Visitors were impressed.

    "Y'all are really building from the ground up," said Nadine McCrea, who is from the Washington Park neighborhood in Hollywood, Fla.

    She called the organization "a train of action."

    Andy Garry, a neighborhood planner in St. Petersburg, told the other visitors not to forget where the action started.

    "Don't be looking for a white horse," he said. "We've met the heroes, and they are us."

    -- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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