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    Ridgecrest discussion heats up packed hall

    Changes to Omni Center plans seem to appease nearby residents, but many still object to the extension of 119th Street N and are upset when they are not allowed to speak.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


    LARGO -- A standing-room-only crowd estimated at 350 gathered Thursday evening to discuss the county's efforts to improve the Omni Center and extend 119th Street N into Largo.

    Although opposition to the plans for the Omni Center has lessened, many in the crowd were still upset about the road extension. For some, objections turned to disgust when they were told they could not address the audience.

    "We want to be heard!" several residents shouted at the end of the remarks by county officials.

    "We want a recount," one woman said.

    County officials and even some opposed to the extension, however, considered the meeting productive.

    "I think the meeting went very well," said County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who initially called for Thursday's meeting at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service Building. "Some of the answers we are going to have to work on because we want to have progress and no one should suffer."

    Chris Dowling, a Largo resident who has helped lead efforts to have his neighbors' voices heard, held somewhat similar sentiments.

    "I think the (County) Commission knows how we feel now, and at least they have a clue," he said. "I think it was good because it showed the commissioners (that) the community has interests in these things."

    For more than three years, the county has been working with residents of Ridgecrest, an unincorporated neighborhood that some believe has been ignored by the county over the years, on improvements in their community. County officials agreed to extend 119th Street N to 16th Avenue SW to provide an access route for residents and emergency vehicles. The county has also been working with the Suncoast Family YMCAs, which manages the Omni Center, on plans that include a football/soccer field, a swimming pool and several other improvements to the building.

    Many Largo residents who live north of the Omni Center opposed the plans, believing they would bring excess noise, traffic and crime into their neighborhood. The YMCA recently amended its plans for the football/soccer field to ease those concerns.

    County officials Thursday mentioned several other ways they hope to make the project more amenable to those residents. The plans include low-level lighting and prohibiting the use of bullhorns. Officials also pointed out that Largo residents can serve on the YMCA's advisory board.

    But the officials also said they would not put sheriff's deputies inside the Omni Center because there is a sheriff's substation two blocks away from the facility.

    Some in the audience quickly groaned when Carol Seaman, the county's assistant community development director, spoke of the importance of extending 119th Street N.

    "What about our traffic?" asked one man.

    "What about crime?" another asked.

    "Please, don't shoot the messenger," Seaman replied.

    County officials set up tables inside the auditorium for residents to learn more about the plans. Index cards were also available for writing comments.

    Harris explained that public comments were not allowed because many opposed to the plans had not seen the proposed project, and county officials wanted them to have a chance to look at plans first.

    "We wanted people to see the project and talk to the Y and everyone else here," he said.

    Bob Petersen, a resident of a mobile home park near 16th Street SW, complained that he and his neighbors should have been allowed to speak.

    "They're just telling us what they are going to do," Petersen said. "They are not letting people ask questions."

    Longtime Ridgecrest resident Lillie McGarrah said she understood the county's reasoning regarding public comments. But she suggested that more meetings might help.

    "I think additional meetings would probably be beneficial," she said. "Considering the size of the audience, (public comments) would have been very difficult."

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