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A local 'Mount Rushmore'

Three neighborhood presidents move mountains to improve home turf.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published February 9, 2007


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SEMINOLE HEIGHTS -Before they moved to Seminole Heights, Randy Baron was just a computer programmer, Sherry Genovar-Simons didn't know her neighbors and Gary Ellsworth had never thought of joining a civic association - he didn't even know whether his neighborhood had one.

But something transformed the three into what Shannon Edge, the city director of neighborhood and community relations, calls "the Mount Rushmore of neighborhood presidents."

Now Baron, the Old Seminole Heights president, is running for City Council.

Southeast Seminole Heights president Genovar-Simons is the Tampa Police Department's Citizen of the Year.

South Seminole Heights president Ellsworth wants to pursue a job with the city in community relations.

What turned them into leaders?

"Seminole Heights did it," Baron said.

First: a problem

Genovar-Simons moved to Seminole Heights 11 years ago and rented until she could buy a home in 2001. She moved from a lake house in Odessa to one with drug dealers on the corners and prostitutes prowling the streets.

When she took her concerns to city officials, they offered no help. "I should accept it because that's where I live," she said she was told. Her response: "That's just unacceptable."

She banded with neighbors and patrolled the streets armed with flashlights. They confronted prostitutes first on foot, then in cars.

"Our only goal was to keep them from making money," Genovar-Simons said.

Prostitutes mocked neighbors, dancing in the spotlights and showing neighbors parts they didn't want to see. But little by little, they started going away.

"Over the years, we have seen an epidemic basically dissipate to the level that we see today," said Tampa police Maj. Bob Guidara. "Though there continues to be a market for prostitution, it definitely is just a fraction of what it once was at its peak."

Then: friendship

In Seminole Heights, neighbors joined to tackle problems. Then they realized they liked each other.

Now 61, Genovar-Simons, the two-term civic association president, gets credit for reviving Giddens Park, launching Dog Day in the Park and cooking the winning dish in the neighborhood's annual chili cookoff: spicy pork and red bean chili.

"Neighborhood associations by their very nature tend to have activity and volunteerism when there is an issue," Baron said. When issues are tackled, "that community spirit is still there."

Baron, 45, moved to the neighborhood in 1999 and clearly remembers why he became involved.

"I wanted to go to a restaurant and I didn't want to go to South Tampa to do it."

"We started working on getting more residential services. Next thing I knew, I'm president of the association and I'm running for City Council."

In his campaign Web site, Baron writes at length about code enforcement, transportation, development, historic preservation and government accessibility - all realms he worked in as an association president.

"If there's an issue that comes before the city, more than likely, we've dealt with it," Baron said.

Maybe next: a job

Like Baron, Ellsworth, the 53-year-old president of South Seminole Heights, wants to turn his civic activism into a job. He has spent most of his life banking but would prefer a gig in the city's community relations department.

Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., Ellsworth moved to Florida 21 years ago. He has lived in Pinellas, Land O'Lakes and Carrollwood, but it was only when he moved to Seminole Heights that he joined an association.

Unlike Genovar-Simons and Baron, who met their neighbors while solving a problem, Ellsworth joined after he won a neighborhood beautification award. It was his invitation to get involved.

Now starting his fourth year as president, Ellsworth recognizes the power of civic activism.

"Everybody gets excited about presidential elections, and we're already focusing on the 2008 elections," Ellsworth said. "But if you want to improve your quality of life in the day to day, it happens on the local level."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

 

[Last modified February 8, 2007, 10:16:07]


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