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Regional site brings county to residents

County government is moving to the SouthShore.

Hillsborough County is starting construction on a regional service center behind the Sunpoint Shopping Center on 30th Street SE. The facility will hold local offices for a number of county agencies, cutting back on travel time that residents now face to seek services.

"Holy cow! No longer do we have to go to Tampa and Brandon," said Walt Cawein, president of Sun City Center Community Association, noting that he looked forward to learning more about services to be provided. "It's going to be a huge resource to residents in this area."

At more than 20,000 square feet, the regional service center will be the first of its kind in Hillsborough County. The SouthShore center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2005.

Once completed, residents can visit the center for many government needs, including paying their water bills, reviewing property assessments and recording deeds and marriages.

Similar concepts are in the works for Brandon and Plant City. A Brandon center is planned for Pauls Drive, just south of Oakfield Drive, in the Main Street development. But construction won't begin until 2006, with a scheduled opening in June 2007.

Money has not yet been allocated for the Plant City center, which would be combined with a renovated courthouse. The sites in Brandon and Plant City will require different designs, but the county is learning in SouthShore how to develop the concept with residents' input.

"We see this as a model, in so far as how the process goes," said Swati Bose, who oversees architectural services with the department handling county real estate.

In addition to a regional service center in Ruskin, she said that HARTline will share space at the 10-acre site with bus facilities. Eventually, a fire station also may be located there. The buildings would be constructed separately from the regional service center.

For now, attention is focused on the service center. When citizens enter the building, they will walk into a reception area. Meeting rooms for 130 people will sit to one side. Behind a receptionist, an open work space will feature more than a half-dozen county agencies.

Agencies planning to have offices at the service center include the Citizen Action Center, the Clerk of the Circuit Court, Code Enforcement, Planning and Growth Management, the Property Appraiser's Office, the SouthShore Justice Center and the Water Department.

The one-story service center in Ruskin features a flexible design, so other agencies can open counters as needed. The $3-million plus project is being funded by the Community Investment Tax. Almost eight years ago, a group of Ruskin residents spearheaded the drive for a local government center. The project took many twists and turns over the years, as local groups and government agencies looked for ways to speed up construction.

Ultimately, the county could build its portion first. But the effort helped bring together residents from Apollo Beach, Gibsonton, Riverview and Sun City Center as a SouthShore community.

_ Letitia Stein can be reached at 661-2443 or lsteinsptimes.com.

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