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New Tampa asked to help Suitcase City residents

(ran NTP edition)

Todd Wiener had his reasons for asking State Rep. Victor Crist to talk about Suitcase City, the crime-ridden, blighted area west of the University of South Florida.

"I don't want to give the impression New Tampa has to apologize for being an upscale community, and for people wanting to live here for that reason," Wiener, a dentist, said in an interview before Thursday night's meeting of the New Tampa Community Council.

"But you can't close yourself off in walled and gated communities and put your head in the sand and not realize the rest of the county is there," he said.

Wiener hopes New Tampa can be a good neighbor to Suitcase City, a term people use to refer to the area north of Fowler Avenue, south of Skipper Avenue, east of Interstate 275 and west of Bruce B. Downs.

Crist, R-Temple Terrace, who represents the area, said the first thing good neighbors should do is quit using that name, a point he reiterated in an interview after his talk.

"We do not like the name Suitcase City and neither should anyone else," he said. "It is a derogatory term for an area in our county."

Nevertheless, it does describe what Crist calls "the highly transient nature of the area," which came to be when the University of South Florida opened in the 1960s and tax laws enticed developers and landlords to provide cheap and inexpensive housing for teachers and students.

Crist said the area suffered a major blow from the development of newer and nicer apartments up the road. "Suitcase City became Suitcase City when New Tampa became New Tampa," he said.

The neighborhood west of USF, where 32,000 people live within walking distance of each other, has the highest density in Hillsborough County, Crist said. He also noted crime is about four times higher than anywhere else in the county, and Suitcase City is home to about one-quarter of Hillsborough's subsidized housing and welfare recipients.

"To the best of my knowledge, there is no welfare in New Tampa," Crist said.

Suitcase City also has no public schools, Crist said, and that is where New Tampa neighbors can help. They can lobby for a middle school in the area _ something the school district has not planned through at least 2004, he said.

Crist said New Tampa also can help raise private funds for a $6-million University Community Center Complex, for which county and state funds already have been earmarked.

"We need their help," Crist said of the New Tampa Community Council. "They are a large, strong and respected organization that represents a very influential community which is directly impacted by the problems that unfortunately plague the west side of campus.

"It's down the street today," he said, "but could be in their front yard tomorrow."

That effort already is under way in Suitcase City, Crist said, with the establishment of the USF Area Community Civic Association, "the largest civic group in the Tampa Bay area, with over 4,000 members and affiliates."

"If you look at the members of the board of directors of most civic groups, generally they are socially and economically similar," Crist said. "You look at our board of directors, it is major diversity. You've got college professors working with people who can barely read and write. You've got someone with $1,000 in their pocket sitting next to someone who never had more than two dollars in their money clip. But we're all working together as a family."

Said Wiener: "We are neighbors with these other folks and there are common issues. If we can help, I think it's a good thing."