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Progress sluggish on rejuvenating USF zone

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Published:   |   Updated: May 2, 2013 at 07:13 AM
TAMPA -

Everyone likes Innovation Destination in principle.

A beautiful vision for the University of South Florida area, it would clean up the ugly streets around Busch Gardens and USF, bring in new businesses and turn the area into a research and medicine-based zone that capitalizes on USF and H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center’s brainpower.

But almost no one knows how to create it.

A two-year effort to plan for an innovative business zone surrounding USF has struggled to get off the ground, with too many groups pushing their visions for the project.

For example, the biggest institutions in the area, including USF and Busch Gardens, focused on beautifying the streets and attracting business; community activists concentrated on the decades-old problems of crime and joblessness. Eventually, a consultant who was hired to plan Innovation Destination was let go when the parties couldn’t agree on a vision.

Today, everyone says they’re working on a solution and that the project isn’t dead. But it shows how hard it is to bring about change in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist insists that a quick fix approach won’t work.

“That’s what they wanted to do,” Crist said of some early proponents of Innovation Destination. “They wanted to put a coat of paint on this and not do anything about the termites.”

An awkward coincidence is that some of Tampa’s iconic institutions — USF and Busch Gardens, among them — border one of the Tampa Bay area’s poorest neighborhoods. The ZIP code that includes the impoverished “Suitcase City” neighborhood near USF has a median household income of $29,000.

USF President Judy Genshaft shared her vision for improvements in a fall 2010 speech, when she coined the term “innovation zone.”

“This innovation zone won’t be just in one place,” Genshaft said at the time. “New technology will remove geographic boundaries. It will bring tomorrow’s ideas to life today.”

By fall 2011, the plan seemed to be coming to life. The area’s heavyweight institutions, USF, Moffitt, Florida Hospital and Busch Gardens, formed a nonprofit corporation, the Tampa Innovation Alliance, to cement their partnership. And the county’s chief economic development group, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., agreed to lead the effort.

That latter group hired a former city of Tampa official, Michael Chen, to answer the tough question: how to turn a dilapidated area into a vibrant business center with biomedicine companies, nice stores and attractive housing.

“Everyone was anxious to get something going, to see this thing start,” Chen said this week.

But competing interests emerged and started pushing for a broader focus than simply attracting business, fixing sidewalks and adding landscaping.

Crist, who has spent years working on behalf of the university area, has a grand vision for the Busch Gardens/USF area. He foresees a San Antonio-style riverfront for the Hillsborough River, on an admittedly smaller scale near Sulphur Springs, a new stadium for USF’s football team near the old dog track and, possibly, a Tampa Bay Rays stadium in the area.

He and the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corp. pushed hard for a social services component for the new innovation zone, one that would alleviate the crime and poverty in the district.

“You could beautify a street, but if you don’t do something about improving the lives of the people who live on that street, it’s not going to help in the long term,” said Dan Jurman, chief executive of the CDC.

That more expansive vision may have worried USF and its partners in the Tampa Innovation Alliance.

In a recent visit with the Tribune’s editorial board, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said those big institutions wanted a stronger focus on traditional economic development: bringing in new business and industry, and improving infrastructure and aesthetics.

They retreated when the emphasis became more about “redevelopment” than economic development, Merrill said. No one was against improving quality of life, and new business undoubtedly would help local residents. But they still worried about a shift in focus, he said.

Busch Gardens’ chief executive, Jim Dean, this week denied there was any major rift between those who wanted to focus on business development and those who wanted to concentrate on social services. The major issue has been how to pay for the planning studies that need to be done, which could exceed $1 million.

“I don’t think there’s been a disconnect,” Dean said. “If there’s been a delay it’s been, ‘How do we fund a master plan?’

For now, Merrill admitted Innovation Destination hasn’t moved forward, and he and others in economic development circles are trying to salvage it. Hillsborough County has a new plan that would create “economic development areas” in certain parts of town and the USF area would likely be one such area.

Both Crist and Dean say they’re optimistic about the project’s direction. And in the meantime, USF, Busch Gardens and their partners in the alliance are still meeting with university area community activists and studying how to pay for all the innovation zone’s planning, Dean said.

Chen, the one-time consultant on Innovation Destination, lost his consulting gig amid the confusion about its focus. He says he is disappointed, but understands the complexities.

“Everyone wants to improve,” Chen said, “but improvement is defined differently.”


msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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