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County to apply for Tommytown grant money

Residents of Tommytown have been dreaming big for years. Dreaming of paved streets. Dreaming of a central water and sewer system. Dreaming of an end to the days when an average afternoon shower turns the impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Dade City into a mosquito-breeding swamp.

On Tuesday night, county commissioners brought the dreams closer to reality, voting unanimously to apply for a $7.5-million federal grant to pay for an aggressive two-year redevelopment project in Tommytown.

The vote was cheered loudly in Tommytown, and left the community with even bigger dreams, said Margarita Romo, executive director of Farmworker's Self-Help, a non-profit agency that advocates on behalf of the neighborhood's struggling Hispanic residents.

"Our dreams are big," Romo said. "In time, we're going to make Lock Street (the community's main thoroughfare) look like downtown Dade City, with shops and plenty of lights."

Despite voting for the plan, several commissioners said they had reservations about pouring government money into a community when the improvements _ and the accompanying rise in property values _ may end up benefitting absentee landlords, which own a substantial number of the residential units in Tommytown.

"The rent's going to go up," said commission Chairman Steve Simon. "So who are you trying to help?"

In the end, though, commissioners said they could not, in good conscience, reverse the 1998 vote of a previous board to move forward with a comprehensive redevelopment of Tommytown.

"A deal's a deal," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, a member of the board in 1998.

Dozens of Tommytown residents attended Tuesday's meeting, sitting quietly as commissioners debated the future of their community. The residents weren't asked for their input, but the signs they held said plenty. "Green is for growth," said one. "Save Tommytown," said another.

The board on Tuesday night opted for a plan that allows the county to borrow the entire cost of the project up front from a federal block grant program. The loan would be paid back, with interest, over 20 years using a portion of the county's annual allocation of grant money. Annual payments on the loan would be about $650,000.

An earlier plan to use a majority of the county's allotment of federal grant money over the next three years to pay for the improvements had been criticized by commissioners representing west Pasco districts. The concern was that other struggling communities would be deprived of government aid until the Tommytown project was completed. Tuesday's vote ensured there will be plenty of grant money left over each year for other communities.

If the county's application is successful, and staffers said there is no reason why it would be denied, construction could begin within a year.

Redevelopment plans call for paving Tommytown's deteriorating dirt roads, building water and sewer lines, improving drainage and installing traffic signals and street lights.

"They did a good thing," Romo said of the commissioners. "I thought they'd drag their feet a little more.

"To hear them say, "We've made a commitment and we're going to stick to it,' was really neat."

_ Cary Davis can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll free at (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236.