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Courtship of Ridgecrest heats up

But is an annexation marriage good for both sides? Some Ridgecrest residents aren't sure it's a good match.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published August 29, 2004

LARGO - After years of courting other communities, city officials have returned to the table with leaders of Greater Ridgecrest to explore the possibility of annexation.

None of the leaders gave the annexation a resounding yes. But several said they wanted to know what benefits they would receive if they joined Largo and how much it would cost to do so. They plan to meet again after Largo researches the facts and figures.

The Greater Ridgecrest area, which is primarily black, is surrounded by Largo, which is about 93 percent white. The Greater Ridgecrest community is made up of several neighborhoods, including Dansville, Ridgecrest, Baskins, Martin Terrace and Rainbow Village.

Previous attempts at annexation have not been successful. Historically, people in Greater Ridgecrest were not treated well by many of their white neighbors and that history has thwarted past efforts.

City Manager Steve Stanton is eager to prove that things have changed. Three weeks ago, he and Mayor Bob Jackson met with community leaders at the Ridgecrest Community Center.

"I think they're an isolated community that is part of Largo," Stanton said. "We need to correct a historical wrong and welcome them into the community."

Some community leaders are willing to give Largo a chance this time.

James Feazell, 57, a former Largo High School social studies teacher, attended the meeting with Jackson and Stanton. He said he favors the idea if Largo comes back with incentives that make it sensible.

"Mayor Jackson has a genuine heart for the diversity issue. He's concerned about people," Feazell said.

Feazell, whose family came to the community in 1960, said he hasn't received as much ill treatment by white neighbors as some members of the community have.

Friends of Ridgecrest president Tasker Beal Jr., 54, helped organize the meeting and thinks relations with Largo are improving. Still, he said, "I'm concerned as to what happens if we do annex."

Wanda McCawthan, vice president of Friends of Ridgecrest, is cautious, too.

"At this point, I'm not seeing the benefits of it for the community," said McCawthan, 50, who is also president of the neighborhood watch group.

If city leaders like what they hear, the annexation could eventually go to referendum, Jackson said.

Largo's last strong effort to annex the Ridgecrest community was in 1976. The majority of Largo residents voted for annexation. The majority of people in Ridgecrest voted against it.

Largo discussed annexation with Ridgecrest a couple more times over the years, but the city never made aggressive attempts to annex it. That lack of enthusiasm brought accusations from the county that Largo was "cherry picking," seeking out chiefly affluent communities.

A few years ago, the county presented the idea of annexation to the Ridgecrest residents at Largo's request.

"We were told the resentment is too deep and they don't think the time is right," Stanton said.

Largo may still have a way to go to persuade Ridgecrest residents to annex. A 2002 Fair Housing study documented bias against minorities trying to rent apartments in Largo. And within the past few years, fire and police department employees resigned or were fired after allegations of inappropriate racial comments.

But earlier this year, the city and neighboring Ridgecrest came together to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., marking a sharp contrast to last year's celebration when the communities held separate vigils.

And recently city officials have decided to create a memorial to the civil rights leader in Largo Central Park.

Meanwhile, Ridgecrest leaders wonder how joining Largo will change people's lives. They worry that taxes will go up or that Largo might pull the Pinellas County sheriff's substation, which keeps a protective eye on the community.

Stanton said it will likely cost residents more to be part of Largo, but Ridgecrest will receive more services in return, like street cleaning and street lights. And Largo has no intention of yanking the substation, most likely beefing up community policing instead.

Since the county has poured millions of dollars into revitalization efforts within the community, several leaders are afraid their community would be left high and dry and those efforts would stop.

Friday, Stanton met with County Administrator Steve Spratt and both said no matter how annexation progresses, that won't happen.

Spratt said the county has committed more than money to the community.

"We've got a human investment in Ridgecrest and the county is going to continue to be supportive of that area," Spratt said.

Some find the city's eagerness to annex suspicious, according to Solomon Davis, who owns the Hair Authority barber shop in Ridgecrest.

"This place has been undeveloped for many years. Now that it's developed, they're ready to annex it," Davis said.

These days, Stanton and Spratt rarely see eye to eye when it comes to annexation, but both said they're willing to work together to educate the community about what each municipality has to offer.

Willie Kendrick, 65, who lives in Ridgecrest, said he'd be open to joining Largo because services like garbage pickup would make his life easier. Currently, he has to contract with a private company.

But several residents said they're not looking forward to all of the rules that would come with annexation. They're concerned Largo would cite them for not mowing their lawns often enough, or for parking recreational vehicles in their front yards.

"The county has 100 rules, the city has 600," Maurice Goshay, 37, said.

Goshay remembers what race relations were like years ago and said he's not keen on being part of Largo today.

"It was hard for us to go through the city of Largo without being harassed. They weren't reaching out to us before, so why all of the sudden?" Goshay said.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 29, 2004, 01:43:28]


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