Back in his early days, Alexander Lopez traveled by stroller along unpaved side streets and a busy main strip with no sidewalks. It was a bumpy ride — one that his baby sister, Jasmine, does not know. Jasmine smiled one day last week as their mother, Gregoria Lopez, pushed her stroller down the new sidewalk along Lock Street/Calle de Milagros. Alexander, now 3, tottered behind, his journey smooth enough for him to keep a lollipop in his mouth.
"Before, the wheels in the stroller would get stuck in the dirt, and now she can move easily," observed Margarita Romo, a 75-year-old community activist.
The sidewalks were part of a recently finished $8.4 million project that also added 7 miles of new streets plus sewers and stormwater drainage in the impoverished Tommytown community outside Dade City. As part of the project, the county also demolished 15 blighted houses.
The project, financed by a federal loan, represented the second and largest phase of Pasco's most ambitious neighborhood redevelopment effort. Commissioners will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony around noon Tuesday.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said the project gave a psychological boost to the neighborhood before construction crews turned over any dirt. He recalls some people had begun fixing up their homes when they learned the county had agreed to do the work.
"We'd already begun to see response from the citizens," said Schrader. "It's already begun, and I see much of that continuing."
Romo, the director of Farmworkers Self-Help, said Tommytown has seen a number of positive transformations over the past couple of years: An abandoned lot became a community park. An old pool hall soon will become a youth center called My Other House.
New road work won't overhaul a poor community — it still has dilapidated, boarded-up homes, and people line up at Romo's agency for free bread — but it's a huge visual step, she said.
"I think everybody on this street is starting to fix their houses up," Romo said. "The improvements have been tremendous. Because now the community feels better."
Tommytown sprouted in the 1940s and 1950s as families came to work at the then-booming Lykes Pasco packing plant. By the time the citrus plant closed in 2004, Tommytown was home to the working poor, many of them migrant workers.
Teresa Zamora, a 66-year-old widow, moved into a home on Tait Avenue nearly 15 years ago when she and her late husband were working in orange groves and picking berries and squash.
When Tait was unpaved, winds or passing traffic frequently kicked up dust, which aggravated her asthma. But now she can keep her front-door porch open and let her cat wander in and out.
"Our neighborhood was real low," Zamora said, "but now it looks better."
Not all the improvements can be enjoyed, however. The project extended sewer lines and upgraded water lines, but the pot of state money originally planned to connect homes to those lines has nearly dried up.
Without some help, most Tommytown residents could not afford the city's water and wastewater impact fees, which run well over $5,200 per single-family home.
Community development director George Romagnoli said the county had planned to use state housing funds to help Tommytown property owners pay their impact fees. That money — known as State Housing Initiatives Partnership, or SHIP — has been decimated over the past few years due to state budget cuts.
Romagnoli said the county is trying to get federal housing authorities to allow Pasco to spend some of its loan on the fees.
The original federal loan for Tommytown was $13.6 million, more than what the project ended up needing. Much of that money has been designated for improvements in other communities, including Lacoochee, Gulf Highlands, Moon Lake and Kent Grove.
"We'll figure out something," he said. "Just because we're done with the road work, we're not done with Tommytown."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.