TAMPA — Can you replant roots in the same soil from which you were uprooted? Kela Sirmons wondered as she looked out the bus window.
"I know it won't be the same," Sirmons, 30, said. "The memories won't be the same."
Central Park Village was where she had lived since she was 7 until 2006, just before the blighted complex was razed. It was where her grandmother lived and where her mother died.
She had been forced to relocate, and Thursday was her first visit back — aboard a Tampa Housing Authority shuttle bus to view what was rising in the old public housing complex's stead: A stylish 41-acre campus of high rises, office buildings, senior centers, parks and a grocery store.
It is called Encore, an appropriate name as Sirmons debated her second act there.
She was among about 30 former Central Park residents given their first look at the $450 million project, still years away from completion.
When 483 families were forced out of their low-income community into subsidized housing all over Hillsborough County, the Tampa Housing Authority pledged to give them first rights to rent 794 rent-controlled homes on the 1,500-home campus.
On the bus Thursday were residents who had spent just a few years at Central Park along with long-timers who recalled the Cozy Corner, a long-gone restaurant nearby that served up $1 fried chicken and rice.
"I'm going back," said Barbara Ingram, 66. "It's the place I need to be."
Others were less nostalgic, recalling Central Park's crime and grime.
"I miss nothing about Central Park," said Ronald Bates, 43, "just the location."
As the bus rounded Nebraska Avenue, the riders had a clear view of the SunTrust Financial Centre building downtown. Out their windows on the flat land, a battalion of shovelers, tractors and backhoes pushed dirt around, laying pipes and foundations.
David Iloanya, Tampa Housing Authority's real estate development director, stood at the front of the bus with a microphone.
"That's going to be a seven-story structure with a garage," he said. "You can see folks still working, doing the landscaping. "It'll be a beautiful site."
People oohed as he told the riders that the senior center will have an outdoor shuffleboard court on a top floor. They were impressed to learn they won't need a car to get to the grocery store or pharmacy. Rain water will irrigate the landscaping. Solar power will power street lights.
"That's a hotel pad," Iloanya said. "Right where you see that dirt dumped. And they're going to build condos next to it."
The construction site has put 400 to work, and Iloanya said 10 times that many will work at Encore once finished.
"A lot of opportunities," muttered Bates, an out-of-work kitchen manager.
Sirmons had no plans to move back a year ago. She was finally comfortable living in a house near 34th Street and Hillsborough Avenue after being accustomed to living in a small apartment in Central Park.
"I hated the crime," she said. "The little gangs they had. But I loved the community. I knew everybody there, their kids, when people moved in and out."
Her 11-year-old daughter, Tijae McPherson, still refers to Encore as "Central Park."
"I said, no, it's the Encore," Sirmons said. "She said no, it's going to be Central Park."
Sirmons decided she had to judge for herself, which is why she boarded the bus Thursday, to look into the past — and future.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]