Charlie Harper is a Largo city commissioner. He gives the impression that he has the world's weight on his shoulders.
This time, you're glad that he does.
For this time, Harper is wrestling with what to do with the people who will be out of a place to live when several mobile home parks in town come down.
That they are coming down is inevitable. The parks _ eight of them _ are within a redevelopment district, part of the historic center of Largo, and they just won't fit with what's coming. Restaurants. Boutiques. Antique stores. You know.
But the problem has to do with more than fitting in. The parks are magnets for drugs and prostitution, Harper says, crime that spills out into the surrounding neighborhoods.
He took me out for a drive Wednesday, to show me a few of these places that upset him so. "This is my city," he said, "and I damn sure care about it."
It was mid-morning. The streets were at-work deserted, the parks empty of the nighttime trouble that he said he has witnessed. He had talked a lot about blight and slum conditions at some of these places. So I went in expecting to be shocked.
I was not. I saw cardboard in windows, car parts in grass, a lonely child's rocking horse amid bricks strewn about, homes so close they about touched, homes that cried out for paint and grass.
But I didn't see beer bottles or crack heads. I didn't see much trash. Sometimes the view was improved beyond that. Mobile home parks may not be your idea of home, but they are home to somebody, precious places indeed. One-third of Largo's homes are mobile homes.
I admit I was only looking at the exterior of the homes, but I have seen the same or worse in parks for the elderly in St. Petersburg, and parks for migrant workers in Wimauma. Nobody is complaining about conditions in them or campaigning to eradicate them. Maybe they just aren't in the path of redevelopment yet.
So I wondered, what does this mean? That these parks are worth saving, or, more likely, the other parks, in other communities, will eventually disappear, too?
The doomed Largo parks have names that belie their fates. Rainbow Court. Shady Dell. Blue Skies. Skyview. Whispering Pines, to name some.
What will happen to them is not the result of some ambitious developer, but the city of Largo, which hatched the redevelopment plan, and is now deep in discussions about what to do _ more precisely, what to pay _ to relocate 400 to 600 families when the time comes.
The mood in the parks is already anxious.
City officials have heard from park residents. Harper has fielded questions. So he's careful when he speaks. "The city is not going to go in and bring down any of the mobile home parks."
The city will change the zoning of the parks to make them more attractive to developers. When and if developers buy in, the mobile home occupants will have a year to move. State law requires some to get paid for a fraction of their losses, but many, if not most, of the affected are renters. Harper doesn't know what if anything can be done for them.
His emotions are divided. He doesn't argue against demolition. He wants the new Largo, the shops, the condos. He likes it when he hears that his hometown is the fourth largest city in the bay area, bigger than Sarasota. But the people in those mobile home parks, he doesn't want them hurt. He worries where the displaced will go, the grandmothers, the children, the extended families.
He worries so much that when you press him, he admits he's more interested in what happens to the residents than in the redevelopment plans. "That's because I grew up there," he says of the mobile home parks. "I understand what poverty is."
He has no illusions. "I'm just afraid that if someone doesn't speak up for them, they'll be left behind."
_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.