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    Seminole hires first planner

    Selected from among 20 applicants, Jamal Block will handle the city's annexation efforts and other chores.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- Lori Block's eyes followed her son as he shook hands with each of Seminole's City Council members seated at the dais. This was his moment, and with camera in hand she captured it.

    Snap. Snap.

    "I was a little uncomfortable with it," Jamal Block said of his mother's camera work at this week's council meeting, "but this is my first big move."

    Hiring Jamal Block, 25, is also a big move for Seminole. As the city's first planner, Block was awarded one of this city's most important jobs: annexing unincorporated land.

    City leaders want to triple Seminole's size. If that happens, as many as 60,000 residents would live within a city that would swell to 12.5 square miles. Today, Seminole's 16,000 residents live within a 4-square-mile city.

    Despite being at the center of such an aggressive agenda, Block says he's ready. His inexperience, he says, shouldn't be a problem.

    "I can do it," said Block, who in 1998 graduated with a bachelor's degree in urban and regional studies from the University of Wisconsin.

    Mitch Bobowski, Seminole's general services director, said Block's education and personality made him the right choice for the job.

    "Looking at all the other candidates, he seemed to be the best suited for the position," said Bobowski, who had headed annexation efforts in Seminole since 1999. "It's a real people job."

    Seminole touts its annexation philosophy as low-key. Officials say they wait for people to come to them before they start any annexation procedures.

    It seems to be working. The city nearly doubled in size last June, when three unincorporated areas voted for annexation.

    Block, who started work Monday, says he realizes not everyone favors annexation. "It's all part of the process," he said. "All we can do is give people the information and let them go at it. If they want it, the votes will show it."

    Bobowski said 20 people applied for the planner's position. The city interviewed seven candidates. The position, which pays an annual salary of $31,784, requires the handling of annexation, site plan reviews, variance requests, zoning issues and general planning activities.

    Block says an eight-month college internship during his senior year sparked his interest in city planning. He worked for the Economic Development Office for the city of Appleton, Wis., where he designed a city park and served as a liaison between the city and developers.

    Block's aspiration to be an architect soon was replaced with a desire to work as a city planner. He said he likes being involved in the politics of planning a city.

    "It's really about making the best environment for the people living there," he said.

    Block worked for Wisconsin Public Service, an energy company, and Shopko, a national retail chain, while looking for a planning job.

    A nationwide search led him to Seminole, which was in the process of filling its new position.

    Block says he liked what he saw in Seminole: a young city with room for growth. Friendly people. Pretty parks. And warm weather.

    Well, sort of.

    "It's chilly, but it's better than below zero," he said.

    Block's parents, Ernest and Lori Block, helped him move here. "They weren't crazy I was moving this far away, but they were happy for me," he said.

    Bobowski said the city was willing to overlook one minor detail when hiring Block.

    "I think the fact that he's from Green Bay shouldn't be held against him," he said, referring to the Green Bay Packers-Tampa Bay Buccaneers rivalry. "And it gives us a year to convert him."

    - Staff writer Maureen Byrne can be reached at 445-4163 or at byrne@sptimes.com.

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