Community leaders in West Tampa should think twice before blaming the Occupy Tampa camp for the blight on Main Street and the surrounding neighborhoods. The camp is many things — an eyesore, a waning display of a muddied political message — but it is hardly the cause of the sorry state of this promising gateway into downtown. Blaming Occupy will only distract the civic effort toward beautification and ease the pressure on the city to start addressing the larger hurdles to redevelopment.
The Tampa Bay Times' Justin George reported Sunday on the tensions between Occupy protesters and neighborhood activists. In December, after repeatedly clashing with police at the original protest location at downtown's Curtis Hixon Park, Occupy moved to a park on Main Street owned by businessman Joe Redner. But some neighborhood leaders are tired of the camp. They say the protesters are causing a mess and taking business away from area stores and restaurants. A petition making the rounds calls for the protesters to leave, and neighborhood leaders are set to bring the matter to the Tampa City Council on July 19.
The tent camp looks tacky, but Main Street has long been an eyesore. It is unfair to blame the Occupy group for bringing down the area when the real problem in the district has been with run-down commercial properties, open trash, public drinking and drug sales and loitering. Occupy didn't create this environment, and moving the protesters won't change it. If anything, Occupy is about the most passive activity on the street. And the protesters are not keeping customers away from Main Street businesses.
Occupy is being used as a pawn in a larger battle between residents and businesses around the nearby North Boulevard Homes public housing complex and a group of broader community leaders who want the area redeveloped. Main Street has great potential; it runs between a city park and a public high school. Its neighborhoods line the Hillsborough River and are minutes from downtown. But redeveloping the Main Street area inevitably raises delicate racial questions. What would happen to these primarily black, low-income residents?
The city can resolve concerns over the Occupy site by altering its public gathering ordinances to more ably accommodate large and ongoing demonstrations. The city did this already for this summer's Republican National Convention by agreeing to temporarily ease some financial and permitting requirements. Some of those concessions should be made permanent.
But city and neighborhood leaders should be clear about the difference between addressing nuisance concerns at the Occupy site and the more fundamental and polarizing question of how to alter the look and economics of an established community. A group of civic associations will host a discussion of Occupy's impact in the neighborhood at 2 p.m. Saturday at the West Tampa library, around the corner from the Main Street camp. This is an opportunity to confront the serious quality of life concerns that existed in the community far before the Occupy movement came about.