Turning around the central Tampa neighborhood of Sulphur Springs will require smarter planning, years of work and tens of millions of dollars. The blight didn't appear overnight, and it won't disappear quickly. But the city of Tampa has made a good start in recent months, unveiling housing programs that Mayor Bob Buckhorn predicts will "set the table" for additional public and private investment. The mayor will need to keep up the work for any recovery to have a chance.
Buckhorn announced the city would spend $1.4 million to build 12 new single-family homes in Sulphur Springs, about 5 miles north of downtown. The homes will be built on lots the city cleared last year as it bulldozed dozens of abandoned properties that had become nuisances. The money, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will act as seed for new investment. As the first homes are sold, the city will use the proceeds to build the next round of properties. It has already lined up the contractors and has 25 buildable lots.
Two dozen homes won't make much of an immediate bang in a community where decrepit homes, poor infrastructure, crime and vagrancy take a heavy toll block after block. And the city's program won't work if it allows the very conditions that brought down Sulphur Springs — poverty, neglect and a glut of slumlike housing — to drag down the value of these homes, dashing the chance to build additional housing, household incomes or a stronger neighborhood.
The mayor needs to continue pushing across a broad front. The city has increased police patrols, assigned three code enforcement inspectors full time to Sulphur Springs, trimmed overgrown trees, hauled away 150 tons of trash and worked with Tampa Electric to install hundreds of new streetlights. The area is cleaner, safer and higher on the city's political radar.
Buckhorn and the City Council need to maintain the energy and sense of concern that will keep others doing their part, from the School Board to the nonprofits, who have worked to improve the educational and social settings. Buckhorn called attention to the effort again last month during his annual state of the city address, vowing that this neighborhood would not be left behind amid all the attention to downtown and the channel district.
This is the commitment the private sector needs to see. The area won't rebound as a charity case, and property owners and businesses won't invest until they see the city confronting the underlying problems, from the shabby look of Nebraska Avenue to the underutilization of the Hillsborough River and River Tower Park. Buckhorn should use his solid relationship with county officials to steer a broad range of resources to Sulphur Springs, from job-development and housing efforts to smarter urban planning. The area has its problems, but it has history and location, too, and writing it off is not a smart or practical option.