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West Tampa group wants Occupy Tampa out of park

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:41 PM
WEST TAMPA -

Residents and merchants here have grown weary of the Occupy Tampa movement's 6-month presence in their midst, and some of them aim to take action.

On Thursday they plan to take a petition to the Tampa City Council. It maintains that the movement has turned a privately owned park on Main Street into an impromptu squatters' village that is unsightly and, at times, unruly.

Since adult nightclub owner Joe Redner made his Voice of Freedom Park available to the movement in December, it has filled with pup tents, and has become an eyesore that is unclean, disorderly and unsafe due to people using drugs and drinking alcohol, the residents say.

Redner said he was aware of recent complaints, but had no plans to ask Occupy Tampa to leave his property at 2101 W. Main St. "I have heard no credible complaints," he said Friday.

Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association and Crimewatch, said he expects to have "several hundred" signatures on the petition by Thursday.

"It's not (supposed to be) a campground. It looks awful," Vannetta said. "Now it's become a homeless tent village. We would like the park cleaned up."

Occupy Tampa members say no one contacted them about the complaints in the petition. The movement bans drugs, alcohol and violence, they say, and at least three people who violated those provisions recently were told to leave.

Those people have since encamped in a vacant lot behind Redner's land.

"I am aware we have had problem people in the past, but we are making a huge effort to not have those people live here," said Niko Segal-Wright, a college student from Sarasota who temporarily is volunteering at the park. "We are making an effort more than before to make this a place that works with the community."

Occupy Tampa, an off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, landed at Redner's park after months of around-the-clock protests at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa. There were escalating clashes with Tampa police officers and some arrests of its members before Redner made his offer.

The move to West Tampa largely took the local movement out of the limelight.

"To tear it down would be a disaster in terms of kicking people out," said Tristan Lear, a local Occupy Tampa member.

The park has electricity and two portable toilets provided by Redner. In a space between two buildings next to the park, about 30 tires are painted in pastel purple, pink and green, and filled with vegetation. Small signs stuck in the soil identify potatoes and lemon-drop tomatoes as growing there. Lettering on a bed sheet hung on a fence invites people to step into Main Street's community garden.

City police and code enforcement officials monitor the area. "We're a little limited; it's private property," said Dennis Rogero, Tampa's director of neighborhood empowerment. As far as code enforcement, he said, "There's no violation of any law."

Tampa police said there have been no formal complaints within the past two months. The most recent arrest was for disorderly conduct of a man who was told to leave the site. "They (Occupy Tampa) called to report him," said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

On Friday, Steve Johnston sat in a lawn chair outside his tent in the nearby vacant lot. He acknowledged he was told to leave the park after an alcohol-related infraction, though he was not the man arrested. "They come up with all these rules: you can't do this, you can't go there," he said.

Since his ouster, Johnston said he has stopped tending the community garden where he was growing green beans, squash, basil and watermelon. He said he will stay put until the Republican National Convention and then move his protest to Charlotte, N.C., and the Democratic National Convention.

Vannetta said many people in the community simply are tired of dealing with the situation, and want the park back. But he said, "We're trying to do it very nicely."


ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652

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