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Sense of community swells in Brown Acres

Drainage improvements and speed bumps may still be a ways off, but residents have grown together amid the county's revitalization.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002


PORT RICHEY -- Just months into its facelift, Brown Acres is already seeing signs of improvement. But a bit of major surgery remains.

So far, the community just east of U.S. 19 has made some major strides: access to zero-interest home rehabilitation loans and low-interest home loans; the enactment of a financing mechanism to pay for neighborhood improvements; mass cleanup days; and now a holiday decorations contest.

What remains is a plan for big-ticket items such as drainage, street lights, road improvements and speed bumps.

But neighbors say Brown Acres already has hurdled one big obstacle: the building of community spirit.

"They are really excited," Danielle Gomez said of her neighbors. Gomez, a Brown Acres resident, is on a committee of nine people working with the county to coordinate community meetings, events and a long-term plan.

"We're starting over," Gomez said. "We have to start anew and forget about everything that's happened in the past."

The county targeted Brown Acres this fall as the first of three communities to help revitalize sagging home values and quash high crime rates. The other two communities are Holiday Hill in Port Richey and Sunnydale in Hudson.

To blunt the sharp edge of cynicism in Brown Acres about the county's intentions, officials have descended on Brown Acres to reassure residents that they really do mean to help.

The revitalization effort started this summer when Commissioner Pete Altman brought up the idea to his colleagues at a meeting. Since then, he has been the driving force behind it, lifting the dreams from paper to pavement. Altman helps host community meetings and is quick with jokes to relieve tension and focus debate.

A cleanup day in October resulted in 29 tons of trash being hauled away, filling a dozen trash bins. The day found Altman standing in one such bin pushing down trash. Also on hand were County Administrator John Gallagher and budget director Mike Nurrenbrock.

County Attorney Bob Sumner helped cook the hamburgers and hot dogs for the barbecue that followed.

Code enforcement officials attended a meeting in October to hear complaints from about 70 residents. And most recently, Sheriff Bob White spoke before about 50 residents during a community meeting Thursday night.

In a room decorated with a Christmas tree and garland at the Community Aging and Retirement Services center, residents gathered around card tables. They waited patiently through White's speech about the importance of being neighborly. Then they lobbed complaints.

Many expressed fear about speeders along their streets. Others talked of rampant drug activity. Most said they wanted a bigger law enforcement presence.

White offered to do more, though he was confused about how they failed to notice his deputies.

"This is really one of our hottest call areas," White said. "I don't understand how you don't see the coverage."

Residents plan to discuss the formation of a neighborhood patrol during one of their next meetings in January or February. This month will feature a contest on holiday decorations.

Bigger tools will help residents with their homes. On Tuesday, the County Commission granted approval for Clearwater nonprofit Tampa Bay CDC to buy condemned homes in Brown Acres, fix them up and sell them at a reasonable price.

Also, two banks have offered to join the county in a home loan program. The banks would loan half the money for the mortgages, while the county would loan the other half at zero percent interest. Payments on the county's half of the loan are deferred for five years.

About 10 homeowners have applied for rehabilitation loans. Payment on the zero-interest loans is deferred for three years.

Gomez is one of the homeowners applying for a loan to fix her house.

She hopes to install new windows and rebuild a room to fix code violations present before she bought her white three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Seward Drive.

"You would have to be crazy to be a homeowner in this neighborhood and not take advantage of (the program)," Gomez said.

She said she already had paid thousands of dollars to fix a sinkhole on her property, install a new roof and paint the house.

"I plan on staying in this neighborhood," she said.

The county hopes the feeling spreads. Officials want to encourage renters to become homeowners and owners to take pride in their investment so that the area improves as a whole.

The next step for Brown Acres is to form a street light district and a capital improvements plan to be approved by the County Commission, said George Romagnoli, interim director of the county's Community Development Department.

Capital improvements include drainage and possibly speed bumps. The commission created a special taxing district in Brown Acres to pay for the improvements. The money will come from taxes on property values, which are expected to rise as rehabilitation gathers steam. The county could front the money in the meantime.

Romagnoli hopes to write up the capital improvements plan within the next month or two.

As Gomez and other residents are encouraged by the county's commitment, Romagnoli is impressed by the community response.

"I think they are starting to think as a neighborhood," Romagnoli said. "We're not going to be there forever."

-- Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is amrhein@sptimes.com .

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