Groundbreaking ceremonies occur so frequently these days in Tampa, it can be difficult to keep up. I’m starting to think Mayor Bob Buckhorn sleeps in his suit with a shovel beside his bed, the better to save time as he hops from project to project and leads the social and cultural revival of our city.
All that work is important, of course, but what happened on a chilly Wednesday morning along a narrow street in Sulphur Springs was worth an extra glance. Buckhorn joined other political and civic leaders in turning the first shovel of dirt on the next phase of this neighborhood’s renewal.
“This is our toughest neighborhood. This is where we have our biggest challenges,” Buckhorn said later.
But tough jobs and big challenges can bring large rewards. The city is banking on that in its long fight to return this storied section of town to what former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio called “a premiere neighborhood” dating to the 1930s and ’40s.
The city has been leveling dozens of abandoned houses in the area, crumbling places that had been taken over by gangs, crack dealers and hookers.
“This place was hemorrhaging, and until we stop the bleeding we can’t start looking for a cure,” Buckhorn said.
New houses, underwritten by a $1.4 million federal grant, are central to that cure. Wednesday’s announcement was that 12 new single-family homes will be built on city-owned lots. Builders can bid for the right to construct up to four houses, which will be sold at whatever the market will bear.
Once those are sold, they’ll build more houses until they fill all the empty spaces, about 80 lots overall. The hope is for new families to move back into the neighborhood and put down roots.
It’s a noble gambit, but, alas, without guarantees.
Much of the housing boom in Tampa and Hillsborough County, for instance, is driven by investors buying up properties for rentals. That’s a red flag here, since that kind of housing nearly brought Sulphur Springs to its knees to begin with.
“In the early days of Tampa, this was considered a great neighborhood,” said Iorio, who also writes a history column for this newspaper. “Somewhere along the way it became a place of transitory housing. There were lots of duplexes, lots of rentals, and that hurt.”
Crime and other problems followed, and it wasn’t long before families fled to safer neighborhoods.
“That doesn’t mean it can’t be resurrected,” Buckhorn said.
Increased police patrols have helped reduce violent crime by 20 percent, but that doesn’t mean the bad people suddenly took up knitting and croquet.
“When you run them out of here, they’ll go someplace else,” said Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick, whose district includes Sulphur Springs. “That’s the risk you take when you revitalize.”
So, I asked the mayor, are we solving one problem by creating another? Is there any indication where they landed after leaving here?
“Hopefully in jail,” Buckhorn said.
Then he said something about letting Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd deal with them. While that was good for a chuckle, what’s happening here is serious business.
“This opens the door for people to walk the streets again,” Sulphur Springs Action League President Joseph Robinson said.
Think about being scared or otherwise unable to enjoy a basic neighborhood stroll in the cool of the day. That’s what this place has been through.
That’s why what’s happening here stands out, even given everything else in play throughout the city. If a great old neighborhood can come back to vibrancy, that’s good news for everyone.