Sunday Conversation: Sarah Combs takes holistic approach to improving University Area

Sarah Combs, CEO of the University Area Development Corp., is shown in front of a map of land the organization is buying to develop affordable housing. LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times
Sarah Combs, CEO of the University Area Development Corp., is shown in front of a map of land the organization is buying to develop affordable housing. LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times
Published May 15
Updated May 15

Sarah Combs, 36, has spent more than eight years with the University Area Community Development Corp., including the last four as CEO of the nonprofit organization.

A former staff member for Best Buddies, she admits she had never looked at the low-income area between Fowler Avenue, Bearss Avenue, Interstate 275 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard until someone asked her to apply for a position as program director at the University Area Community Center the development corporation operates at 14013 N 22nd St.

"I drove into the community and saw the need - and I saw the opportunity, too," said Combs, a Colorado native who attended the University of Northern Colorado where she earned a degree in sociology with an emphasis in Criminal Justice and a minor in Legal Studies. "I was meant to be here."

In her role, she seeks to improve the residents’ lives through job training, employment, home ownership, parenting skills, health and nutrition and pride in the community. She oversees an annual budget of almost $5.3 million with 41 full-time staff and 19 part-time staff members and various contractors, including those teaching Prodigy Arts classes, the nonprofit’s signature program.

Combs lives in New Tampa with her husband of 13 years, Will Combs, who works for USAA, and their three children - Alyssa, 5, and identical 3-year-old twins, Ayden and Trey.

She recently sat down with Tampa Bay Times correspondent Lenora Lake to discuss the changes she sees happening in the University Area, a community that for many years was known as "Suitcase City"

What made you apply for the CEO position?

I had been the interim CEO two times, first when (former CEO) Julian Garcia left. I was pregnant and decided the time wasn’t right to apply then. Then when Dan Jurman (CEO after Garcia) left, I said, "This is a no-brainer" - even though I was pregnant with twins.

What did you have going right when you took over?

I didn’t have a learning curve because I had already stepped in as CEO. And I had been the COO and program director, too. I’ve had an opportunity to learn this organization from ground up.

What did you see that needed improvement when you took over?

We needed to change to a more holistic approach to the community. We had been focused on the center and we really needed to know the people in the community.

What are you doing to ensure that the residents and businesses have a voice in the direction of the area?

We are involving the community. The kids had a hand in designing their own playground at Harvest Hope Park. We are having movie nights, barbecues. We are working on ways to help families get out of poverty and make them self-sufficient. We are training residents in the community as ambassadors so they know this is their home - not just the place they stay.

I understand you are buying land for affordable housing. Tell me about the plans.

We are land banking and working on our 12th property. We plan eventually to build 10 to 12 single-family homes though Habitat for Humanity and other partners. We plan to start in June and expect about eight months to complete. We are planting the anchors for home ownership.

Prodigy has always been your model program. What is happening with it?

We received funding for $1.5 million from the state. It’s an increase from last year but we had been at $4.6 million previously. We’ve created Prodigy on the Move taking it out to corporate settings, birthday parties with break dancing, painting and more. We’ve got to think of it as a business to fund our own development. What we fund, we can then leverage with grants and other sources.

Harvest Hope Park (13704 N 20th St) has been a major project for the UACDC. How are things going with it and what’s left to do there?

It is thriving with 33 (garden) beds; we’ve had 926 volunteers and 10 partners. We’ve added little Dream Boxes, which are little libraries with books and flyers. We also have started a teen night to reach teens at that crucial age. We want to make it as cool as possible.

We are in permitting now for the next stage with a multipurpose facility, walking trails, outdoor fitness area, lighting, sidewalks, parking and a dock for the fishing pond. It’s funded and the park is the heartbeat of our community.

How has the creation of !p (Mark Sharpe’s nonprofit organization seeking to bring businesses, redevelopment and innovation to the area) affected the University Area and the UACDC?

Mark has been very receptive to bring this community along with their plans. He supports a Community Benefits Agreement where a certain percentage of the development has to be affordable housing and a certain percentage of the work force has to come from here.

What are you doing to work with this plan?

We will train for their needs. We are starting new programs in hospitality, customer service, janitorial as well as offering Microsoft training, other job skills and dress for success.

A final question: How in the world do you do all this with three little children?

By the grace of God - and a lot of great support. My husband is amazing. We have a great nanny who has been with us five years. And, by being able to ask for help.

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