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Agencies teaming up to save neighborhood

Janet Stefke decided a few years ago to test the system.

She'd grown tired of the trash piling up in her neighbors' yards, the deteriorating buildings and the crime that seemed to run rampant.

She complained to anyone who would listen. She asked for help from everyone she could think of.

Today, around her High Point neighborhood Janet Stefke is called the "commbitchioner."

She wears the title with pride.

County Commissioner Steve Seibert said he remembers the day Stefke called his office to say she couldn't take it anymore.

Could he, would he, come out to High Point and take a look?

Ten years ago Stefke and her husband, Ronald, moved to High Point. Since then, the neighborhood, made up almost exclusively of rental units, steadily deteriorated, she said. Janet Stefke said the problem was that absent landlords wouldn't maintain their properties and tenants had no desire to spruce up a neglected, temporary home. People with criminal backgrounds were moving in, making the area unsafe for families like hers.

"Let me put it this way," she said last week. "It was so bad, I wouldn't invite my relatives over."

Seibert went to High Point, between Roosevelt Boulevard and Ulmerton Road east of U.S. 19, and he and Stefke toured the area.

"Janet was right," Seibert said.

He said he found neglected front yards loaded with old sofas, car parts and other trash. Duplexes and triplexes were marked with graffiti. Many housing units were boarded and vacant.

Worst of all, there was no place for the neighborhood's numerous children to play.

Seibert said he saw an opportunity for government to make a difference.

"In the unincorporated area (like High Point), there's not too many areas you'd classify as inner-city. But this is sort of along those lines," he said.

So he went back to his office and put together a team. Among the players: his new friend Stefke; County Administrator Fred Marquis; Sheriff Everett Rice; other county department chiefs, including the folks from Community Development; Rick Butler, a friend of Seibert's who manages some of the housing units in the area; and Fred Cutting, a friend of Seibert's father who owns some of the housing units.

"We all got together in a room and talked about what we could do out there," Seibert said.

Rice took a look at a broken-down building that once served as a community center for a housing complex and suggested it could easily be made into a sheriff's substation. In May, he began a community policing program in the neighborhood. Two deputies, Jim Piper and Robert Wojciechowski, are assigned there full time.

Cutting, who had previously maneuvered to get 14 streetlights burning in a few areas, got property owners to agree to pay for 34 more. They will be installed soon.

Butler, Cutting, Stefke and her friend Penny Kent (called the "assistant commbitchioner") organized a neighborhood cleanup.

"We filled five or six truck beds full of stuff," Cutting said.

And finally, P.

A. Tyrer in Community Development got a federal grant for the neighborhood that enabled the county to buy the former community center and its adjacent swimming pool for $50,000.

Another grant, worth $350,000, will enable the county and the YMCA to replace the dilapidated building, maintain the pool and operate a real community center for neighborhood families.

"We're extremely excited about becoming a part of that community," said Steve Tarver, the YMCA's executive director.

Tarver has surveyed residents in High Point to find what services they want the YMCA to provide.

The No. 1 need: child care. Neighbors also want the swimming pool to remain and would like opportunities for other outdoor recreation, such as basketball courts.

The YMCA, Tarver said, can fill these needs.

"I've taken some of our board members out there, and they've gotten hooked emotionally on some of the children they've met," he said.

A couple of others hooked on High Point are Tyrer and Richard Stiles, also from the county's Community Development Department.

"This whole thing was initiated by someone from within the area," Tyrer said. "What a difference this is going to make in that community."

Although the sheriff has targeted the entire High Point area, from Roosevelt Boulevard south to Ulmerton Road and from U.S. 19 east to 49th Street, the Community Development Department's targeted area is a smaller, strictly residential area.

Its boundaries are Roosevelt Boulevard south to 150th Avenue and from Verona Avenue east to Willow Way.

That area has about 20 acres of property with 236 housing units. More than 96 percent of the housing units in the area are rentals. Eighty-five percent of the residents are white. Seven percent are black, and 5 percent are Hispanic.

High Point Elementary is within walking distance for most children in the community. But because of court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance in the schools, the children are bused to schools out of their neighborhood.

If young children could attend their neighborhood school, "it might help create a neighborhood identity," Cutter said.

Although some families have lived in the area for years, the majority move in and out.

Most recently, since sheriff's deputies became so visible, Kent said she has noticed more people than usual moving out.

"That's good," she said. "We don't want those people here."

The women said they'll work with the county as long as it takes to make their neighborhood a more desirable place to live. One of their goals: to establish Crime Watch groups throughout the area, although that's going to be difficult since many of the residents don't have telephones.

"All I want is a normal neighborhood," Mrs. Stefke said. "I'm tired of seeing the filth. I want it cleaned up."

So does Seibert.

"I don't want to get too thrilled about this," he said, "because the excitement could peter out. But I don't think it will."

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