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Civic associations are on life support

It was members of the Town 'N Country civic association who came up with the notion of "green Saturday.''

That was the day once a month when members got together and mowed the medians along Woodbridge Boulevard.

They took over the job because the county wouldn't mow around the trees the civic association had planted.

"I said then that it was stupid because the people who started it can only do it for so long,'' said Bill Browne, a 30-year veteran of the civic association. "Now we're paying to have it done.''

And that takes up a major portion of the association's budget, Browne says.

Few people would say that beautifying your neighborhood is a bad thing. But in this case it was asking too much of too few.

Town 'N Country, however, is not alone. Many other civic groups are having trouble attracting new members and losing their rank and file, either from burnout or from ill health.

"It's depressing. There's no way to sugarcoat it,'' Browne said. "We can maintain the illusion of things working for only so long until people start dying off.''

Most community leaders agree that a crisis almost always unites a neighborhood. But once the emergency is past, the same small group of civic leaders often are left to deal with the details that keep a neighborhood running smoothly.

Typically, they see to everything from getting the gang graffiti off the walls to making sure potholes get fixed and dangerous intersections get traffic signals.

All the while, Browne said, civic association "membership is steadily declining because people just assume somebody's taking care of it.''

'A huge problem'

The county also is aware of the problem and it's one reason Hills­borough holds an annual neighborhoods conference.

The daylong event, held at Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry campus, will be March 29. It seeks to help residents learn how to build a sense of community and make their neighborhoods safe, attractive and friendly, said Wanda Sloan, conference director.

Preparing the next generation to take up the torch seems like the most obvious answer. But it's not that easy.

"It's a huge problem,'' said Lutz Civic Association president Steve Polzin. "Even the literature has addressed community participation and how to engage the next generation.''

Civic concerns take a distant second to work and family obligations, not to mention pastimes like TV and the Internet.

"Absent some compelling crisis, interest wanes and people go on about their daily lives,'' Polzin said.

Newsletters, once the standard for getting the word out, are falling by the wayside. Some civic groups say they're too time-consuming and expensive to produce, and often they're tossed out unread.

So civic associations are trying different approaches.

Lutz has adapted its neighborhood Web site so residents can get their information electronically.

Then there's Keystone

In Keystone, they're counting on an active social calendar to revitalize interest.

"Whether they're 19 or 79, there's always a way to reach out to people and persuade them nicely to join,'' said Barbara Dowling, Keystone's recording secretary.

"Keystone has tried to do that with the kinder, gentler way through Jazz Fest and Keystone Family Fun Days.''

But Keystone is a bit different from many other communities. Keystone often finds itself in fight mode, so much so that social happenings keep taking a back seat.

"Historically we were a social group that morphed into snapping developers' heads off because they wanted to violate our community,'' said Tom Aderhold, civic association president.

"Now we're trying to reinvigorate our social calendar but not diminish our strength in protecting our community.''

When in fight mode, "they bring the old war horses back," said Steve Morris, a past president of the civic association.

Morris said that part of the problem is getting residents to realize they can make a difference. But it's a tough nut to crack, "especially with these enclaves of little subdivisions coming in, because the world doesn't exist for them beyond those gates.''

Strategy and loss

Rosemarie Middleton, president of the civic association in Twelve Oaks, agreed that too much of the work typically falls on the shoulders of too few people. She said part of the trick is knowing how to ask for help.

Her technique? Keep the task specific and the time needed to accomplish it short.

"I might ask for just one hour,'' Middleton said, "but that one hour is worth a pot of gold.''

Sometimes, though, community organizations simply lose their heart. That appears to be the case in Citrus Park, a close-knit community that recently lost two of its most dynamic members, Jean Carson and Betty Crews.

Carson, who died last year, was the group's president for many years. Crews, who also died, was seldom in the spotlight but handled many of the organization's day-to-day details.

Cheryl Pulley is the acting president. She works as a lunchroom manager and takes care of her grandchildren.

"We don't know what we're going to do. There's a lot of apathy,'' she said.

Jackie Ripley can be reached at ripley@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5308.

Civic associations are on life support 03/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2008 5:00am]
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