Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Politics

County takes on transforming USF area into 'innovation destination'

TAMPA — Hillsborough County wants to make a greater push at turning the area around the University of South Florida into an economic development hub.

County commissioners directed their administrator Wednesday to craft a framework to make it happen. That likely will involve forming a task force of people from groups with interests in the area — from the university and nearby hospitals to neighborhoods and Busch Gardens.

But commissioners also discussed ideas for what is tentatively being called an "innovation destination" that could include creating a special taxing district or even a separate authority or alliance to oversee efforts.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe in recent months has been promoting the idea of creating an "innovation city" centered on the USF area. He has been working with university and hospital officials to, in essence, create a brand that could be used to entice greater private-sector investment in the area by promoting what is already there.

A group called the Innovation Alliance, including representatives from USF, Florida Hospital, Busch Gardens and H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, has been holding similar discussions for about a year.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Victor Crist brought the topic forward, then expanded it. He said future discussions should involve surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are blighted, such as the area west of USF commonly called "Suitcase City" because of the transient nature of its residents.

But Crist said the effort should go beyond those areas immediately around the university to take in more far-flung neighborhoods, such as Sulphur Springs and Tampa Palms.

For one, any discussion to promote economic development in the area should include people who live nearby, he said. And what happens in those neighborhoods affects residents in surrounding areas.

Further, Crist said, because so many of the neighborhoods have concentrations of poor people, redevelopment might better attract federal grant money.

"Today, we have opened the door and invited the community and neighborhoods in," Crist said afterward.

Crist, a former legislator, has made redevelopment of the area a focal point of his career. Indeed, there have been several studies and proposals to transform the area through the years.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said he believes the sagging economic climate is likely to produce something that bears fruit. He was given 45 days to come up with an action plan.

"Out of crisis, comes opportunity," he said.

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