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Grass routes

Neighborhood associations have found safety and success in numbers. By banding together, they have upgraded parks, saved landmarks and curbed crime.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2003

[Times photos: Thomas M. Goethe]
Carol Anne Hudson Herzog, 10, climbs on the playground equipment Kate Jackson Park. Neighborhood groups raised money to upgrade the playground and landscaping there.
TAMPA -- Vince Ficarrotta's memories of the day he decided to start a neighborhood association 10 years ago are a little hazy, but he does remember the bullets.

The former president of the Palmetto Beach Community Association was at a neighborhood playground watching his then-7-year-old daughter, Gina, play on a swingset when he heard shots ring out from a nearby basketball court.

"That was the last straw for me," said Ficarrotta, 41. "I decided I had to do something."

So Ficarrotta joined the legion of Tampa residents who began organizing neighborhood associations in the late '80s and early '90s.

Fifteen years ago, you could count the number of civic associations in Tampa on one hand. Today, they are a force to be reckoned with and more than 100 grass roots groups span the city from Arlington Heights to Ybor City.

With help from City Hall, determined city residents have transformed a disjointed urban mass into a colorful quilt of distinctive neighborhoods. From refurbishing parks to preserving local landmarks, Tampa's neighborhood associations are a vital part of the city's development.

"As Tampa grew so did our neighborhood associations," said Julie Harris, head of the city's neighborhood liaison office. "I think that our neighborhoods understand that governments can't do it all and neighborhoods need to get involved to make things happen."

Former Mayor Sandy Freedman created the neighborhood liaison office partly in response to the rising tide of neighborhood activism in the late '80s. Since then, the office has facilitated communication between civic organizations and city departments. It has also helped forge links between police and about 150 neighborhood watch groups, Harris said.

The city's program became a model for community associations and municipalities across the state. It was also the talk of town when Tampa hosted the Sixth Annual Florida Neighborhoods Conference in September 2002. The weekend conference featured workshops on everything from fundraising techniques to coping with environmental concerns.

Local activism and city support has helped groups such as the Palmetto Beach association make big improvements. After a decade applying pressure on City Council members, the neighborhood secured $1.5-million in improvements at DeSoto Park.

In 1995, the city purchased the park's 3.75 acres for $715,000. Seven years later, the city decided to develop the park, which features an aquatic center and skate park.

"We've come a long way, and we still have more to go," Ficarrotta said.

Hyde Park Preservation Inc., along with other South Tampa neighborhood groups, had similar success when it raised thousands of dollars to upgrade playground equipment and landscaping at Kate Jackson Park. Neighborhood activists held dozens of fundraisers and worked closely with the city and the Mayor's Beautification Program to install lighting, walkways and an iron fence at the park on Rome Avenue.

Jennifer Szatkowski and her giant schnauzer Maxine have some fun at Corona Park in South Tampa. The Virginia Park Neighborhood Association's work on the unused park is one of the great success stories among the city's neighborhood groups.
"Everybody just worked a lot together," said Harvey Petty, president of Hyde Park Preservation, "It really paid off. We're very proud of it."

Hyde Park residents also urged the city to build a new $900,000 community center in the park. The 5,000-square-foot building will have a computer room, teen center and ballroom. Construction on the building has already begun and is expected to be done in March, said Norma Gene Burr, a Hyde Park Preservation board member.

A few miles away, the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association succeeded in rehabilitating a park on Corona Avenue. Dubbed Corona Park, it was unused for several years until community residents lobbied the city to resurrect the park through the association.

"We had a lot of young families moving into the area so it was decided to reopen it," said Wayne Papy, director of city's recreation department.

In June 2002, the neighborhood association persuaded the department to hire a part-time employee to supervise afterschool programs in the park, Papy said. After a Boy Scout troop gave the park's recreation shelter a new coat of paint, the city also reopened the park's bathrooms.

Developments such as Corona Park have been a boon for Virginia Park activists, boosting attendance at the association's regular meetings.

"They're really one of our success stories," said Sue Lyon, president of the Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods, better known as THAN. "They hadn't really had a group together before. Now they've got 80 people at their meetings."

THAN's 40 association members have actively supported everything from big park projects to the city's grand tree registry. Code enforcement often tops their list.

"They have raised the level of awareness in communities about how to protect their turf," said Bill Doherty, manager of the city's code enforcement department. The department answers calls from residents complaining about everything from busted drainpipes to peeling paint.

The explosion of civic associations over the years has kept the department busy, Doherty said. The number of cases the department handled jumped from 20,000 in 2000 to 26,000 in 2002.

"The key to protecting your neighborhood is starting with the little things. Trash in yards, broken windows, cracked sidewalks are all part of maintaining a neighborhood's integrity," Doherty said.

And sweating the small stuff is all in a day's work for neighborhood association members.

"That's the way neighbors get things done," Lyon said. "When it comes to your back yard, you get involved and you get things done."

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