NEW PORT RICHEY
The Colonial Hills Civic Center was once a hopping place.
It served as the heartbeat of the neighborhood holding weekend dances, a vibrant shuffleboard schedule, pancake breakfasts, and, of course, serious bingo.
Now it is a struggle just to keep it open.
The huge neighborhood between State Road 54 and Grand Boulevard that reaches south to Moog Road could be the poster child for west Pasco's economic meltdown in recent years. The shuffleboard court is cracked and faded as are hundreds of homes that have plunged in value during the recession. Colonial Hills Civic Association president Kelly Miller guesses the 1,700-home community is now 50 percent rentals.
For homeowners it has been heartbreaking to witness the onslaught of foreclosures and crime. Miller's home, bought for $65,000 in 2009, is now worth $58,000. She has a friend who bought during the boom at $150,000. The house is worth $65,000 now, Miller said.
But there is hope.
When Miller, 47, recognized the crisis in her neighborhood, she and her boyfriend, Richard Lubanski, decided to try to clean things up.
They found a civic association with few members and little impact on the neighborhood. Over the last three years they have worked to demonstrate to residents that beautification can raise their property values. Miller said they also actively engaged Pasco County government and the Sheriff's Office to get action on crime and code enforcement violations.
"We had several meth labs in the neighborhood. Theft was a big problem," Miller said. "Both the Sheriff's Office and the county have been so helpful and things have gotten a lot better. We just had to reach out to them."
Miller and her volunteers have also launched an effort to keep open the clubhouse, which is in financial crisis.
"I would love to see it as an active place again," Miller said.
She is pitching a plan to property owners to pay for a $10-a-month membership to the civic association, and in return volunteers will paint and pressure wash their homes. They are also offering a pressure wash and paint job for a one-time fee of $400 to $500 with all funds going toward keeping the clubhouse going. She and Lubanski also run the Colonial Café out of the clubhouse with proceeds going back into the building.
The couple's efforts have drawn the admiration of local agencies that have been working to revitalize west Pasco. Colonial Hills has long been on the radar of the Pasco County Community Development department, said manager George Romagnoli. The department has been pouring millions of federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant dollars into a swath south of Massachusetts Avenue, west of Rowan Road, north of Moog Road and east of U.S. 19.
Community Development partners with the nonprofit affordable housing developer Tampa Bay Community Development Corp. to buy up vacant and foreclosed properties, rehabilitate them, get them on the market and sell them to qualified low- to moderate-income buyers. Colonial Hills has been a major focus, with the county investing around $800,000 on properties in the neighborhood, Romagnoli said.
"The area is definitely showing signs of life," he said.
Miller's work has been a big boost, said Caprena Latimore with Tampa Bay CDC. The CDC has rehabbed 12 homes in Colonial Hills and all have sold.
"I don't think we could do as much as we do without the involvement and action of people like Kelly," Latimore said.
Last month, Latimore and Miller also spearheaded a cleanup and beautification day as part of National NeighborWorks Week.
Estelle Brown had her house selected for a free paint job as part of the event. At 88, she has not been able to take care of upkeep so she also had her windows secured by volunteers.
"I just think it's marvelous," Brown said.
The scenery upgrades have also caught the attention of Art Eickenberg, who bought a home in April with the plan to rent it out. As an investor, he liked the location along State Road 54 and has spent months renovating the home. Eickenberg said the efforts of Miller and others reassured him that he made a good choice buying in Colonial Hills.
"I can see what they're doing and like what I see. That's what it takes — getting people interested in their neighborhood," Eickenberg said.