Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

Battered Ruskin sees hope in Amazon warehouse

RUSKIN

It's hard to miss the line of people outside the Lord's Lighthouse on Tuesday mornings.

Founder Dora Cruz, 82, is greeted by as many as 300 people when the food pantry on E College Avenue opens at 7 a.m.

"These are good people," Cruz said. "They've lost their jobs, and they're hungry."

So count Cruz among many in this southeastern Hillsborough County hamlet expressing joy that online retailing giant Amazon may build a warehouse employing 1,000 people. It's a joy tinged with desperation for a community that all but missed the last construction boom and, so far, the recovery from the crash that followed.

"The whole community is hurting," Cruz said. "Many people come here and say, 'Can you hire me?' "

County elected leaders are calling the deal a game changer. For about $6.6 million in local tax breaks, they say, Amazon's "fulfillment center" could scratch more than the itch for shopping deals.

County commissioners approved the first part of an incentive package Wednesday, $225,000 for 375 jobs that pay at least $47,581 annually. Commissioners will consider a larger property tax break next month.

The 1-million-square-foot distribution center would sit in the massive and mostly fallow South Shore Corporate Park near Interstate 75 and State Road 674. Boosters say Amazon's arrival would bring road widening and other investments that could steer other companies to Ruskin, and employees who will eat and shop.

"What's neat about this project is the catalyst it brings," said Hillsborough County Economic Development director Ron Barton said. "It's not going to transform everything, but it's a start."

• • •

Drive south on U.S. 41 from Tampa and watch the story of Hillsborough's explosive growth during the prior decade unfold. Past swanky Apollo Beach subdivisions named Waterset and Mirabay, the story comes to abrupt end.

That final chapter would be called Ruskin.

"Ruskin used to grow tomatoes, now it grows subdivisions," said Mac Miller, the grandson of one of Ruskin's founders who serves as its historian. "So when the bubble burst and the bankers got rich, poor people lost their shirts. And their shirts are still off down here."

Tomato fields still flank stretches of the roadway along with warehouses and nurseries. Agriculture remains the biggest job base, according to U.S. census data. Some former fields are now working-class neighborhoods, but construction of much other than homes failed to follow, except for a new high school and Hillsborough Community College branch.

The Ruskin Drive-In Theater emerges from one side of U.S. 41, along with fruit stands, fireworks vendors and squat store fronts, many of them empty. A thrift store sign says "all prices negotiable." Some shop owners lock their doors during business hours.

Larry Chalmers, who owns Ruskin Bait and Tackle near U.S. 41 and E Shell Point Road, used to be the latest business open at night. When money got tight, it didn't make sense to stay open until 10 p.m. People come in all the time asking for jobs.

"Our recovery is slower than any other part of Hillsborough," he said. "A lot of people lost their homes and have not bounced back in any way shape or form."

Despite the many blows the tiny town has taken, its natural beauty endears it to residents. Where else, they say, can you look outside and see an osprey nest, or walk to the bayou and see dolphins playing?

Ruskin's founders believed in a form of socialism preached by its namesake, the English philosopher John Ruskin. Workers who moved here in the early 1900s gave part of their earnings to the Commongood Society, which helped pay for community improvements.

They picked the locale because it was remote enough to avoid outside influences. Now many here are embracing an outside force.

"It's somewhat paradoxical that the potential savior of financial viability in south county would be, in effect, a large operation which has contributed to the death of parts of small towns," Miller said.

• • •

Of course, there are skeptics.

Jim Hosler, a former Hillsborough County planner who would later seek to help reinvigorate Ruskin, notes the Amazon site is nearly 3 miles from the town's commercial center. He wonders how many of the new workers will commute from elsewhere.

Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher for the national nonprofit Institute for Local Self Reliance, which promotes the value of locally owned businesses, says they hire nine workers for every $1 million of goods sold. For Amazon, it's one.

"This is not the foundation for an economic development plan that's going to deliver real prosperity and high-wage jobs for the community," Mitchell said.

Still, the prospect of Amazon jobs provides some here a glimmer of optimism.

Doreen Rivera, whose mother runs the Lord's Lighthouse, bought a Ruskin house in 2006. She expected it to be her retirement home. Then the bust came.

"I was promised in five years, Ruskin was going to be this amazing town with a Red Lobster and all this growth," said Rivera, a Realtor. "Five years came by and there was nothing. But hope is on the horizon.

"I see it. I can taste it."

Times researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

     
   
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