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A visit from the chief

A long-awaited visit from the Tampa mayor - and a pledge to bail out a park project - reassures some community members, though they still want to see more.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published September 19, 2003

[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio gets a look Tuesday at New Tampa Community Park, specifically the future location of restrooms and concession stands. The park project has been plagued by delays and confusion, but with the extra $135,000 for new sod the city has promised, it should be open in January.

photo
Mayor Pam Iorio talks to community representatives over lunch Tuesday during her visit to New Tampa. Her visit was long awaited by some activists who claim Iorio has forgotten about the needs of an area she once represented when she was a county commissioner.

NEW TAMPA - Joe Barbara stood on a dirt mound looming above a tangle of construction debris at the New Tampa Community Park when he saw a woman in a rose-colored business outfit approach.

"Hi, I'm Pam," the woman said, stretching her hand over a chain-link fence so Barbara could shake it.

"I know who you are," the utility worker said as he grabbed it. "You're the one in charge of the park."

"Well, not yet," the woman said. "But we will be soon."

Those are welcome words in New Tampa, considering the woman who uttered them was Mayor Pam Iorio. A rare sight in this sprawling bedroom community since she won the office in March, Iorio promised Tuesday to bail out the problem-plagued $5.9-million park by spending an extra $135,000 on new sod.

On top of this announcement, Iorio makes her first public appearance as mayor in New Tampa at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Heritage Elementary School, where she'll discuss other hot topics, including traffic problems. The public is invited.

Her visits have been long awaited by some activists who claim Iorio has forgotten about the needs of an area she once represented when she was a county commissioner. They note that her top priorities upon taking office - redevelop east Tampa, revitalize downtown - didn't include New Tampa.

"In a sense, we can say we're a little disappointed because it's taken a long time for her to come out here," said Frank Margarella, who becomes president of the New Tampa Community Council in October. "So the next 100 days or so will be important. If we don't see her again after these two visits, it won't do this area any good."

But Iorio says New Tampa is always on her radar. Her chief of staff, Darrell Smith, hails from Tampa Palms. As supervisor of elections, she was intimately familiar with neighborhoods because of her frequent visits to give speeches.

And another one of her top priorities, to launch a referendum to improve transportation, does address New Tampa's most pressing problems.

"I'm no stranger to New Tampa," Iorio said.

On Tuesday, she made a point to stop at New Tampa Community Park during a three-hour visit to the area.

"My goodness," Iorio said softly as she looked at the brown soccer fields and weed-choked softball diamonds. Field conditions are so bad that the Hillsborough County School District closed the park Monday and won't open it again until at least January.

It wasn't supposed to have been like this.

The project had been touted by Iorio's predecessor, Dick Greco, as an example of the good that can happen when governments work together. The city would share the land with the school district and would chip in about $650,000. In return, the district would oversee the project and hand it over to the city when it was done.

The project, however, has been beset with delays and confusion. While the district struggles to get the contractor, Hardin Construction, to finish the job, the city has refused to get involved.

Until Tuesday, that is, when Iorio said she had seen and heard enough.

"I don't want the community to suffer because the project was mismanaged," Iorio said. "We want to put this project to bed."

The extra $135,000 for new sod will guarantee the fields will open in January, for good, Iorio said.

Many New Tampa residents had wondered for months why the city wasn't getting involved.

"This project has been a hodgepodge," said Dennis O'Connor, president of the New Tampa Soccer League. "No one wants to take responsibility, including the city."

Margarella, incoming president of the New Tampa Community Council, said Iorio's pledge of the $135,000 was a good start. But he wants to see more.

"That's the olive branch we were looking for," said Margarella, who supported Bob Buckhorn in the last mayoral election and then Frank Sanchez in the runoff. "It shows a little bit of a take-charge attitude. Let's see what follows."

During the summer, the city never fully responded to two other issues that raised questions about who's in charge of New Tampa.

In April, fire destroyed a home on Morris Bridge Road that could have been saved if a county dispatcher had called the city fire station five minutes down the road rather than the county firehouse 20 minutes away.

In July, a homeowners association pulled the plug on streetlights along Cross Creek Boulevard because it had tired of footing the electric bill for the lights.

During a Tuesday lunch at the Hunter's Green County Club, Margarella asked if Iorio had considered pooling city and county resources to govern the overlapping boundaries that make up New Tampa.

Iorio said it would be difficult without a dramatic structural change in government.

"I don't see that happening," Iorio said.

Iorio also doesn't see a number of transportation projects happening unless county commissioners agree to place a tax measure to pay for new roads on the November 2004 ballot.

"These projects won't get done unless we get additional revenue," Iorio said.

About $75-million is needed to build an east-west road between Interstate 75 and Interstate 275. Another $19-million is needed for a southbound ramp at Interstate 75, and $168-million for the widening of Bruce B. Downs.

"New Tampa has some very specific transportation problems," Iorio said. "And they don't get taken care of overnight."

- Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 18, 2003, 10:36:32]

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