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House's demolition a sign of renewal

Dan Echols raised the giant metal claw of his track hoe and dug into the white stucco home at the corner of Grant Drive and Ranch Road.

The roof crunched like a cracker. A porch column toppled over. Severed roof beams and concrete blocks fell amid clouds of dust. Bits of pink insulation streamed down like confetti.

Within the span of a half-hour Wednesday morning, Susan Thomsen's home of 13 years was reduced to rubble, all in the name of progress for Brown Acres.

As part of the county's revitalization efforts in this ailing neighborhood, a county-paid excavator leveled Thomsen's sinkhole-damaged house at 11004 Grant Drive. Another contractor will build her a new home with a thick, reinforced slab and a zero percent mortgage.

Thomsen and her roommate, Karen Middlemiss, hope to be settled in by Christmas.

"It means everything. I feel like I hit the lottery," said Thomsen, 44, who worked for a computer company before back problems put her on disability. "The old house was falling apart. The new one is a dream."

The new three-bedroom, two-bathroom home might be the most dramatic piece of the ongoing facelift in Brown Acres. The county will renovate at least five other homes and is looking at other homes to improve or replace. All of the projects are covered by grant money under the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program.

The county's Community Development Division also is working with residents to draft a neighborhood improvement plan. Some neighbors have suggested repaved roads, sidewalks and streetlights.

"What we're trying to do is increase the value of the area, the livability of the area," said Pat Martucci, a housing specialist for the county.

But the problems in Brown Acres are about more than appearances. Neighbors say a new house on the corner won't chase away the drug dealers who live down the street.

"Nice houses don't change the area," resident Mike Josefowitz said. "It's the drug dealers _ that's why people don't want to come here."

The county is trying to snatch up the deteriorating homes before they fall into the hands of irresponsible renters, said George Romagnoli, the county's community development manager.

Romagnoli's division gives money to the Tampa Bay Community Development Corp. to buy homes in Brown Acres, refurbish them and sell them to low-income families that want to make the neighborhood their home.

But the company has closed on only one home so far because other buyers keep beating them to the punch.

"There's a lot of investors buying up properties (in Brown Acres) and making them rentals, which is the very thing we're trying to fight in that neighborhood," Romagnoli said.

In the meantime, Romagnoli echoed Sheriff Bob White's advice to the homeowners: If you see any criminal activity, call 911.

Thomsen doesn't expect her new home will single-handedly change the neighborhood. But she hopes the self-improvement spirit is contagious.

"I'm hoping I start a trend," she said, smiling.

_ Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is hallsptimes.com.

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