Omni Center protests bring chance to make amends
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000
It would be a shame if bungling by the county government cast a pall on what promises to be a great project in the Ridgecrest community near Largo.
A $3.5-million expansion of the Omni Center at the end of 119th Street will bring an outdoor pool, gymnasium, weight room, athletic fields and a 500-seat football/soccer stadium, all scheduled for completion by November of next year. The rundown Omni Center building will get a major facelift, becoming a source of community pride rather than embarrassment.
Sounds great, but the project already is spawning noisy opposition from neighborhoods to the north, which are separated from Ridgecrest by an empty, 4-acre field that is part of the Omni Center property. Neighbors fear increased traffic, noise and the invasion of bright lights from the athletic fields that will be built on the field. They also are angry that the county government didn't inform them about the project and seek their input.
The Omni Center expansion was approved by the County Commission last year and plans were formalized after many meetings with Ridgecrest residents, who are understandably excited about the project. The predominantly black, low-income neighborhood has been plagued by drug and crime problems through the years and has long felt left out when local governments handed out help. Some residents have been using Largo's facilities and paying non-resident user fees because the county did not offer adequate recreational opportunities. But residents of the predominantly white neighborhoods to the north say they were not contacted by the county or included in the creation of plans, even though their homes back up to the 14-acre property. These neighborhoods, which are clustered around quiet Taylor Lake Park, currently see little in the way of traffic or noise. Those residents already were distraught about the county's plans to extend 119th Street, the main street through Ridgecrest, into their neighborhood and connect it with 16th Avenue. Being left out of the Omni Center discussions added insult to injury.
County officials blew a chance to gather useful input from a wider, more diverse circle of residents when they did not work diligently to draw neighborhoods to the north into the discussion.
Even worse, they missed a perfect opportunity to begin building bridges between the Ridgecrest community and the Taylor Lake-area neighborhoods. Those residents say they are worried about traffic and noise and lights, and those are legitimate concerns that the county must find ways to address. But fear of people who don't look the same way they do, and of Ridgecrest's problems with drugs and crime spreading into their quiet area, are undeniably a part of the equation for Taylor Lake-area residents. The county must deal with that, too.
County commissioners have talked a lot in the past about making county government more open, more inclusive, more approachable for residents. It is past time for them to walk the walk.
The new Omni Center, while owned by the county, will be operated by the Suncoast YMCA, with all of the positive programming that organization offers. It promises to be a wonderful facility that ideally will serve not just Ridgecrest, but also other nearby neighborhoods.
We hope it is not too late for the county to make amends and, joined by YMCA officials, begin building those bridges.
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