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Crime's grip on Columbus loosens

Efforts by various groups to revitalize businesses and homes have the neighborhood on a brighter course.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002


Small business owners Richard Chad and Bill Fields know first-hand the chill of crime.

When the two opened Historic Building Products Inc. on the north edge of Ybor City, burglars broke into the showroom every few weeks.

Drug addicts scored on the street corners.

Leery customers called on their cell phones from the parking lot to make sure someone was around.

That was a year and a half ago.

Today, it's a different place. The break-ins have stopped and at least a few drug dealers have moved on.

"It's getting a lot better," Fields said. "I'm not seeing as many stragglers hanging out on empty porches."

Fields and Chad say the neighborhood along Columbus Drive between N 22nd Street and Interstate 275 is experiencing a mini-revival. The stretch of road even has a name: the Columbus Corridor.

Over the past few months, the owners of Historic Building Products Inc. say various groups -- public and private -- have started projects to revitalize the area. In time, they envision another Tampa Heights, with restored historic homes and new development.

"It's going to be a solid community where you walk to work," Chad said. "I see a good mix of people, from students to working people to professionals."

A drive along Columbus Drive shows many signs of life:

-- Michelle Faedo opened a sandwich and catering shop at N 17th Avenue and N 16th Street.

-- Christ Bethlehem Church at 2705 N 22nd St. is expanding.

-- Developers started converting the Perfecto Garcia & Bros. cigar factory on N 16th Street into loft apartments.

-- JC Newman Cigar Company on 16th Street restored its landmark clock.

-- A group from St. Petersburg is turning an old, rundown boys school at Columbus and N 15th Street into a school for wayward youth.

-- Private homeowners have bought and restored deteriorated bungalows along Columbus.

-- The city of Tampa has set aside $3-million to upgrade the 1930s Cuscaden Pool on N 15th Street.

-- The Florida Department of Transportation, as part of its Interstate 4 widening project, is relocating several historic homes and renovating them for future buyers.

"North of the interstate, nothing has really happened. Now it is," Chad said.

Location marks its greatest asset. The area is a brief drive from Ybor City and not far from Channelside and downtown Tampa. The 1920s bungalows and roaming chickens add style and character.

Chad and Fields opened their salvage company at 1503 E Columbus Drive in an old gas station built in 1927. They liked the easy access to the interstate and proximity to historic houses.

They buy and sell a lot of their items around the neighborhood. Their doors, floors and windows end up in homes from Maine to the next street.

Increased police patrols continue to make the area more inviting, they said. Although problems persist with drugs and panhandlers, the neighborhood seems poised to improve.

They know it takes patience.

"This is a multiyear, 10-year deal before this comes around," Chad said.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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