When city officials reversed their decision to expand the wastewater treatment plant into a mostly black neighborhood's baseball field, many in the African-American community united in protest.
The city pledged to move the treatment plant project to another site, but residents still were skeptical about promises to address their concerns or actively implement improvements to their neglected neighborhood.
It was time for city planner Mike Sherman to step up to the plate.
In October 2011, Sherman was drafted to assemble a team of community leaders into the Neighborhood Steering Committee. Over the next 20 months, he managed monthly public meetings in the commission chambers.
He made proposals, but mostly he listened. Neighborhood surveys were conducted and analyzed by CityVerde, a city planning startup formed by University of South Florida graduates. Priorities were established.
And in that time, the steering committee members became believers.
"We were glad, at last, to be recognized," said Levater Holt, a retired school teacher. "The actions they've taken were really needed, and we're very encouraged."
She served along with the Rev. Jessie McClendon, who served as chairman, and community activists Hazel Wells, Bermice Mathis, Dorothy Harris and Venderee Foster
"I became their advocate while working to implement plans and to keep the enthusiasm going," Sherman said.
The committee developed a plan that provided a clear picture to residents of which types of businesses and development are mutually acceptable. It was up to the neighborhood associations to describe their vision and goals, prioritize expenditures of public funds and identify how they would protect city assets.
The 2012-13 Dade City budget earmarked $75,000 for requested improvements to roads, landscaping and recreation facilities for the adjoining Mickens-Harper, East Lake Park and Habitat for Humanity subdivisions.
"The perception was that they were overlooked for years," Sherman said. "Slowly, I wanted to get out of the typical growth management role with a call for grass roots involvement.
"I encouraged their squeaky-wheel approach. It was a challenge at first to gain the steering committee and the residents' trust. Were there frustrating moments? Definitely."
Over the past year, the city has continued work on the $2 million wastewater treatment plant renovations, including remedies for complaints about odor controls and noise abatement. Neighbors also received a commitment to relocate the entire facility by 2025.
Meanwhile, improvements to Pyracantha Park and the James Irvin Civic Center, situated at the gateway to the neighborhoods, are progressing. New basketball equipment replaced rusty structures, picnic tables were installed, and the recreation center received fresh paint and new flooring, bathrooms and kitchen appliances. Later this year, the center will see more improvements, plus the creation of a city-donated, 2-acre community garden.
City Commissioner Bill Dennis, who cast the 2011 swing vote to save the ball field, is gratified by the progress.
"The staff has pursued this with the hope to take care of the neighborhoods and to accomplish what needs to be done," Dennis said. "When you get people communicating, then matters are better. Like a family, if you're mad at each other, you never get things done. There's more to come."
The CityVerde study rated the Habitat area as excellent and Mickens-Harper as average. But the East Lake Park section earned the worst scores, where 20 percent of homes were declared dilapidated or in need of rehabilitation and over half had neglected landscaping.
The study recommended the city seek funding that can help residents detect lead paint in homes built before 1978 and for rehabilitation of declining properties. The Pasco County Community Development Group, which has a housing agreement with the city, is one such resource.
"We've rehabbed 1,000 homes over the past 20 years while working with qualified homeowners. Our repairs range from fixing roofs all the way to major rehabs," community development manager George Romagnoli said.
Addressing other survey conclusions: the city has twice sprayed for overgrowth in canals and ponds; mosquito control patrols have increased; traffic calming studies were completed (revealing that 80 percent of drivers obey posted speed limits); and code enforcement officials are inspecting blighted properties. Police Chief Ray Velboom consulted with the committee and increased police presence.
Tavaris Elliott, who in his mid 30s is the youngest committee member, expressed impatience with progress. He wants athletic activities to resume on the field across from his house and for street potholes to be patched.
"The ball field grass is growing through the dirt paths," he said. "The bleachers are back, but what good are they if nobody can play baseball?"
Sherman's response is that next year's budget proposal will increase the investment to $120,000 — most of it targeting the baseball complex. He also said approved road repairs will begin at the end of the rainy season.
Holt has been nominated to the Historic Board and plans to remain active in city politics.
"We made our presence known and everybody reached out to support us," she said. "Mike worked tirelessly, and I learned that there are no color barriers. All people have the same desires."
Sherman already has chosen the next neighborhood to organize, a similar-size tract bordered by Meridian Avenue, North Avenue, 21st Street and 14th Street.
"I learned that the best plans start from the ground up," Sherman said. "We overcame different thoughts and disagreements and got so much out of the ultimate consensus. I also was blessed to work with dedicated people. I'm proud to say that I've gained many new friends."