RUSKIN — When Ruskin leaders envision their community, they see a thriving downtown center, connected by light rail and unified by a cohesive small-town look.
At least a decade away, achieving the vision will take work and ingenuity, especially with the county's tight budget, the leaders said. So they're taking the initiative. The leaders, a mix of politicians and local business people, discussed the items last week at three meetings aimed to help residents shape the future of Ruskin. Following is a recap of their major concerns.
A unified thoroughfare
U.S. 41 is home to a dilapidated historic theater, half-full strip malls and overgrown land. Some locals fear it will one day look like another Hillsborough Avenue.
Ruskin and Apollo Beach residents signed up last week to join a county-led task force that will choose aesthetic requirements for businesses along a 5-mile stretch of the highway. As businesses add value to their property along the road, property owners will have to make improvements.
It's a slow process, said Planning and Growth Management executive planner William Lamboy, but it will help create a cohesive look that reflects what residents want.
Allen Witt, the academic dean for Hillsborough Community College's SouthShore campus, plans to join the committee. He said he'd like to see green spaces and water because one of Ruskin's selling points is eco-tourism.
Because Ruskin is rural, it's eligible for dozens of grants and low-interest loans to kick off redevelopment, provide housing, and set up community centers and services.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted a "visioning day" last week, where it explained the opportunities available to about 30 local leaders.
One plan is already in the works. The Ruskin Community Development Foundation will apply for a grant to study the feasibility of starting a "business incubator." The foundation would update a building in Ruskin and provide things like computers. Then it would rent it to a business that needs help getting started. When it's strong enough to move out, the foundation would bring in a different renter.
Local artist Bruce Marsh expressed interest in the possibility of a community arts center, housed in perhaps the soon-to-be-replaced fire station or the historic theater. He hopes to interest residents in seeking funds and grants for the effort.
Small businesses can directly apply for some of the programs, such as loans for improvements that would add value to a product (like turning tomatoes into tomato paste). The programs are not limited to nonprofits or governments. Foundation president Fred Jacobsen plans to hold more meetings to get the word out so Ruskin residents can apply.
Though mired in a recession, mass transit planners aren't stuck in the present. Their plans are for 2035.
Standing in front of the SouthShore Roundtable last week, a Metropolitan Planning Organization official gave a presentation that showed light rail lines that criss-cross Hillsborough County. One travels toward Ruskin.
It still needs voter approval. Taxes would pay for the program.
Roundtable president Anne Madden said she's a fan of rail systems, but she said she's skeptical.
"I don't think it's going to happen any time soon," she said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.