TAMPA — As the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's top leaders crowded into the cinder block community center, deputies dragged in extra chairs, caught off guard by the number of locals who had flocked to the neighborhood meeting.
They are the residents of Nuccio Park, a neighborhood besieged by dismal crime statistics that do not reflect the majority's values. They own their homes. They go to work. They want to feel safe taking walks at night.
"We're hoping to make big changes in this community," district Maj. J.R. Burton announced.
The agency is investing more than $300,000 and thousands of hours into this 2.5-square-mile portion of the county. It's unprecedented, say Burton and Capt. Chad Chronister, who oversees community resources.
"It's a holistic approach," Chronister later explained. "Nuccio is unlike a lot of neighborhoods, which are so transient. They want it to be better."
The agency held the meeting partly to ask for help.
Deputies will need volunteers at the new community center. They want to launch a Neighborhood Watch. They need families to attend various programs, such as movie nights.
The focus is the neighborhood's children. The Sheriff's Office has raised money to fund a new Boys & Girls Club for three years, and they are working with the nearby Robles Elementary to identify at-risk children who could benefit from the program.
The county, including the parks department and code enforcement, and Florida Hospital are also pitching in for Nuccio's revitalization.
"We're committed to this endeavor," Chief Deputy José Docobo said at the meeting. "But we need buy-in. It can't just be the Sheriff's Office."
Nuccio Park has seen trouble for years. Located just south of Temple Terrace and east of Tampa, it's a small tract of land tucked back by the Hillsborough River, easily forgotten — until 2010, when District 1 deputies took a fresh look at the neighborhood. Burton was shocked by the high crime rate, especially for burglaries.
In Nuccio, longtime homeowners live next to low-rent apartments, which sometimes house transient criminals bunking with friends and family members. Pricey houses line the river.
In the '90s, the neighborhood rallied to raze the run-down Moses White Estates, a housing project that has since been rebuilt. It didn't solve all the problems. Just this year, Nuccio has seen two murders.
In 2010, community resource deputy Willie Edom started gathering information from residents. Patrol deputies pinpointed six young men who were committing the majority of the break-ins and focused on arresting them.
This year, county officials poured in resources at a brisk pace:
Code enforcement collected 21 tons of trash in a single sweep. The Sheriff's Office ran a major warrant roundup. The agency sent all of its school resource deputies to Nuccio during the summer for extra patrol — and to clean. They tore down three nuisance homes, Chronister said.
Florida Hospital is talking about offering free to low-cost health care services at the local community center, manned by volunteer physicians. And the Sheriff's Office is partnering with local apartments to work on kicking out the problem tenants.
The Sheriff's Office is also installing seven "Eye on Crime" surveillance cameras in Nuccio — which will be monitored 16 hours a day, just like the cameras in the University Community Area. The recordings will not be saved, the Sheriff's Office says, and the cameras will be obvious, each marked with a large blue light.
But perhaps the biggest change will be the community center. Unused for several years, the building near Robles Elementary is being renovated by the Sheriff's Office. Deputies expect to open its doors next month.
The agency renamed the building the Freddie Solomon Community Center in honor of the late Nuccio-area football coach who was a longtime member of the Sheriff's Office staff.
The Sheriff's Office hired Freddie Solomon's widow, Dee Solomon, to run the center, which will feature special programs such as movie nights and a GRE program. It will also house the Boys & Girls Club.
"The kids have to get some positive influences in their lives," Solomon said. "It's okay to be smart. It's okay to be a leader and not a follower. We need to let them know somebody cares."
Barbara Austin-Lowe plans to help. She decided to pitch in after hearing the Sheriff's Office's plan at the community meeting.
She and her husband moved to Nuccio in 1999. Back then, they were excited about their home. They would go for walks at night. That feeling eventually shifted as, over the years, she watched the community change. She no longer takes walks after dark. Sometimes she hears gunshots.
Like many at the community meeting, she was impressed with the Sheriff's Office's commitment and the focus on children. She hopes it will be successful.
"It's a beginning," she said. "You've got to start somewhere."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.