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Depressed areas get prescription

Residents and the government are starting to polish diamonds in the rough like Tommytown, New Port Richey and Brown Acres.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


About three years ago, Margarita Romo abandoned her effort to rename Lock Street "Calle de Milagros," which in Spanish means "Street of Miracles."

But she still hopes the street, which borders the dusty, lumpy streets of Tommytown, will one day earn that name.

The hope of remaking one of Pasco's most impoverished areas seems more possibility than miracle these days.

There are rotted-out homes to demolish, drug havens to be cleaned up, roads, sewers and street lamps to be installed.

But on assorted corners throughout the 78-block area north of Dade City, pastel-colored three-bedroom homes are under construction, built with the help of no-interest loans, the county, builders and lenders.

Many of the new homes sit next to rusting trailers and de facto junk yards. But the hope is that the improvements will catch on, block by block.

Romo, director of Farmworkers Self-Help, surveys the smattering of freshly bulldozed lots and gives a slow, approving nod.

"Little by little," she says quietly. "For so long this has been the most depressed area. But if you can take it, change it and make it better, people are going to change themselves."

Tommytown is just one corner of the county where residents and the government are hammering away together at redevelopment, each side contributing money, manpower and determination. As new neighborhoods are minted in the pastures of central Pasco to foster the affluent people who are crowded out of surrounding counties, Pasco's government agencies are trying to revive older communities that are being choked by blight. Some of these efforts have been in progress over the past decade and are just starting to yield tangible results. Other efforts were born in the past year.

"More people are moving here and they're demanding more urban services, and because of that the quality of the infrastructure is becoming an issue," said Carol Westmoreland, executive director of the Florida Redevelopment Association.

"Florida is brand-new, but it still needs maintenance. The infrastructure costs are very high, and the only one to pick up that is government. So they need help from the private sector to support investment."

Experts say this local wave of redevelopment is part of a national trend.

"We've spent two centuries developing at such a frenetic pace, in this frontier mode of expansion," said Storm Cunningham, author of the upcoming book The Restoration Economy. "City and county leaders and real estate developers are looking around for the next big frontier. And to see it they have to turn around 180 degrees and look to see that there's a lot more behind us than in front of us."

Tommytown

Families who worked at the then-booming Lykes Pasco packing plant settled here in the 1940s. It was named for Tommy Barfield, the plant employee who helped build many of the block duplex apartments.

According to the latest U.S. census figures, 3,319 people live in the area, and about 78 percent of them are low- and moderate-income residents, which means their household incomes are below $29,000.

For more than a decade, groups of residents, including a "Teen Dream Team," have met to try to improve living conditions and get the government's attention.

Farmworkers Self-Help, which acts as advocates for migrant workers and their families, started buying condemned lots and building new houses for residents about six years ago. The group built a medical clinic, a thrift store and a school to provide after-school and summer tutoring. It recently bought a lush, 3.5-acre spot at Lock and Meredith streets, where it plans to build a nondenominational church.

"The hope is that if other residents see this (church built), they will see that there is hope," Romo said. "They will say, "Yeah, you can do it.' "

About three years ago, on the heels of a $2.4-million improvement effort in nearby Carver Heights, the county decided to funnel money into Tommytown to pave roads and improve drainage and housing conditions. About $10-million in street paving, water and sewer improvements are due for completion in 2005.

On weekend cleanup days, the county hauled away 78 tons of rotted cars, trees and trash. Builders started buying condemned and abandoned lots, and building houses there. The county started providing no-interest loans to help residents afford them.

The program has given the Sanchez family a chance to realize a longtime dream.

Maria Sanchez moved to Florida from Mexico at the age of 10 with her parents. She works at a day care center; her husband hangs drywall.

She is having a three-bedroom, $80,000 home built by Bob Larkin Construction. The county is financing half, with a zero percent loan and payments that are deferred for five years. The bank is lending the rest. If the Sanchezes were to default on the bank loan, the county can take it over instead of letting it go into foreclosure.

"That helps a lot," Mrs. Sanchez said.

She and her husband, Lazaro, are willing to take on another mortgage for the sake of her children. Her 5-year-old daughter has been wheezing since she was 6 months old, but doctors can't figure out why. Maybe it's all the dust from the roads; Mrs. Sanchez thinks maybe it's just because her house is so old. She also worries about the baby she is carrying, due in April.

And then there's the matter of giving her son something he always wanted. When he was 4, he asked for a house with a garage door that had a remote control opener. He is 9 now, and the new home they'll move into in June will have that.

"That was my son's dream."

New Port Richey

City Council members unnerved a lot of residents in 2001 when they declared the entire city blighted.

Pasco's largest incorporated city has plenty of abandoned houses and unsafe and unclean areas. But there are also mansions and upscale housing on the banks of the Pithlachascotee River.

But for a variety of reasons -- including that property values in the city were rising far more slowly than those in the county, and that nearly a quarter of the city's properties were tax exempt -- the entire city qualified for the "blight" label.

Under state law, the "blight" designation entitles a city to a buffet of redevelopment financing options. It allowed New Port Richey to make the entire city a tax increment financing district, and to funnel all money from increased tax revenue back into redevelopment projects: new roads, new water mains, and incentives to lure businesses and improve neighborhoods.

In the 2001-2002 fiscal year, $418,577 from increased property values flowed into New Port Richey's redevelopment fund. The city used about $60,000 of it on home improvement grants for city residents.

At the year's end, 144 residents had applied for $1,000 and $5,000 grants. They made $1.4-million worth of improvements for the $60,000 in incentives that the city doled out.

This year, the city will put its redevelopment dollars to work studying how to develop sites around Community and North Bay hospitals, which plan to leave the city in five years. The city also hopes to buy the Hacienda, a 1920s hotel downtown now being used as a home for the mentally ill, and convert it to commercial use.

But having a "blighted" city has also has some negative consequences.

Near the end of 2002, City Manager Gerald Seeber warned the council that because nearly all revenue from property value increases was being set aside for redevelopment, at some point the city would come up short on, say, firefighter salaries. Seeber urged the council to consider levying fees or raising taxes.

Seeber later told the Times that the city would have run into budget problems even without the blight designation. "Even with good growth in property taxes, that doesn't mean you don't have problems meeting spending obligations," he said.

Port Richey ran into a similar crunch with the citywide redevelopment area it created last January. The $70,000 that Port Richey set aside for redevelopment contributed to a $200,000 budget shortfall in July. City Manager Vince Lupo suggested a tax hike.

"Any community that pulls money out of its operation, it hurts," Lupo said. "But the long-term goals of redevelopment will make up for the short-term pain."

Brown Acres

David Wootten 69, is pretty disgusted when he looks around the streets of Brown Acres, the Port Richey neighborhood where he bought a retirement home 25 years ago.

Dilapidated housing, yards full of junk and parked cars, and overgrown grass abound. In recent years, Wootten has taken redevelopment into his own hands. He and his wife, Roberta, 67, have taken to the streets and patched the potholes themselves.

"Little holes just become big holes," the retiree said.

County leaders, at the behest of Commissioner Peter Altman, are now trying to make sure that the holes -- in Brown Acres' roads and property values -- don't get any bigger.

"It wasn't at the bottom, but it was heading there," said George Romagnoli, assistant community development manager for Pasco County.

In July, the county started getting residents organized, asking them what they want and need, and held a neighborhood cleanup.

Improvements might come through home buyer and rehab loans, grants for connections to public utilities, and an intensive sweep of code violations.

At this point, the county still is trying to figure out what improvements residents want. The county has recruited nine residents, including Wootten, to serve on a community committee and to involve other residents in improvement.

Romagnoli says that is a vital part of the project.

"It's so important to go out there and stress, "We want to build a neighborhood. We want you to work with us,' " he said. "And that's happening in Brown Acres. It's so great to see the people come out there and get interested, involved end enthused."

That describes Wootten, who would eventually like to see a crime watch in the area. He'd also like a little help patching up the potholes.

"The improvement, it's long term," he said. "But the problem wasn't created overnight either."

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