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Neighborhood works to stamp out fires
By STEVE HUETTEL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000
TAMPA -- The city and agencies that worked more than two years to revive Tampa Heights pledged Thursday to help stop a string of fires plaguing the neighborhood just north of downtown.
Starting today, the city will tear down condemned houses that could be arson targets, officials said. The non-profit housing agencies bought 500 smoke detectors for Tampa Heights residents and helped boost to $15,000 a reward for catching those responsible.
"We do not intend to sit by idly while an arsonist threatens the life and property of neighborhood residents," Fernando Noriega, the city's administrator for development, told Tampa City Council members Thursday.
Edgy residents' fears were further heightened by two more home fires that were set early Thursday north of Ybor City.
Just before 2 a.m., firefighters reported smoke coming from an empty single-story house at 2606 N 10th St. While battling the flames, they saw a fire next door in an unoccupied house at 2608 N 10th St.
Investigators don't think the blazes were the work of the same arsonist responsible for six fires in occupied Tampa Heights homes Wednesday and April 27, said Assistant Fire Marshal Todd Spear. He wouldn't say what led them to that conclusion.
Tampa police, city and state fire investigators have blanketed the neighborhood in recent nights watching for suspicious activity and questioning people on the streets.
Tampa Heights residents told council members they appreciated all the efforts.
But they also asked for a town hall meeting for city leaders to address problems they think help make the acts of arson possible: lack of street lighting, open alleys and, most significant, homeless people wandering the neighborhood.
"Between 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock in the morning there are a lot of people roaming the streets who, in my opinion, shouldn't be in any neighborhood," said Eddie Serralles, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.
"There are 50 to 100 people roaming the neighborhood. It would be a huge step ... if we could have some kind of curfew."
Tampa Heights is home to numerous social service agencies and homeless shelters run by Metropolitan Ministries and the Salvation Army.
Neighborhood residents -- who have long complained about the homeless harassing them, urinating and sleeping on their property -- suspect a street person may be behind the fires.
Fire investigators have interviewed homeless people and are looking for one who was admitted to a psychiatric ward at St. Joseph's Hospital but escaped, Spear said.
"He's not the only guy of interest on our list," he said Thursday.
City officials agreed to open the Heights House, an office for the Mayor's Heights Project, as headquarters for arson investigators and a place where residents can get information.
The city also came up with $75,000 to demolish 29 condemned structures in the neighborhood. Historic preservationists surveyed the properties Thursday to make sure no historic structures would be destroyed, officials said.
The reward fund, started last week with $2,500 from an insurance industry group, was up to $15,000 by late Thursday after pledges this week from an anonymous donor and the four non-profit housing groups.
Since late 1997, the groups purchased hundreds of properties in Tampa Heights on behalf of the city.
Dozens of homes were razed for a mixed-income apartment complex. Some properties were sold to developers. Others are being held for companies interested in building a supermarket, a headquarters for GTE Federal Credit Union and high-end townhomes.
The city also is negotiating with housing giant Centex Group and the Hogan Group of Tampa to sell a 68-acre, riverfront area around the old Tampa police headquarters for a $200-million-plus mixed-use development of apartments, offices and retail.
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