The red ribbon needed to be a little bit longer. Stretching across a concrete path dividing a new, blocks-long drainage area, the ceremonial ribbon already tied together more than a decade of work, an abundance of neighborhood improvements and a community's spirit to persevere. Still, nearby sat a dilapidated, paint-starved shotgun shack with two satellite dishes outside. It is scheduled to be torn down shortly, but it serves as a visual reminder. More work lies ahead in Tommytown.
Nobody seemed to mind Tuesday afternoon. Amid brisk temperatures, rhythm from the Pasco High Marching Band's drum line and a hot dog lunch, approximately 75 people gathered to snip a ribbon and celebrate the second phase of the multimillion-dollar investment in Tommytown, just north of Dade City. It is the largest neighborhood redevelopment of its kind in Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Expected to cost more than $13 million, it came in under budget allowing dollars to be allocated for other neighborhood improvements across Pasco County.
The area used to feature dusty, rutted streets and bronchial ailments common to the children. In the summer, rains flooded the neighborhood turning the residential paths into mud. No more. On the north side of Lock Street, the main corridor also known as Calle de Milagros, or Street of Miracles, there are 4.5 miles of newly paved roads, nearly 3 miles of sidewalks and 15 miles of pipes for water, sewer and drainage. A swing set and other playground equipment beckon children to a neighborhood park and residents to a better quality of life.
A federal loan financed the work with the principal to be repaid via another federal program — a share of the county's annual community development block grant allocation to benefit low and moderate-income people. Clearly, Tommytown qualified. When the project started, 78 percent of the neighborhood's 1,300 residents were poor and 44 percent of the housing stock was substandard.
County commissioners initially approved this project in 1998. It stalled, expanded, got caught up in intergovernmental bickering and eventually proceeded. In 2008, the county completed work on 19 blocks south of Lock Street then turned its attention to the just-completed north side.
More hurdles remain. The demise of a state affordable housing program has drained a pot of money the county planned to tap to connect homes to Dade City's central water and sewer system. Instead, the county hopes to obtain a waiver from HUD to let federal money cover the $5,200-per-house connection cost. As many as a couple hundred homes could qualify.
"I don't see that we'll have any problems,'' Karen Jackson Sims, HUD's Atlanta-based deputy regional administrator predicted of the county's request.
That is welcome news. It would make little sense to replace the ceremonial red ribbon with bureaucratic red tape.