Gibsonton residents have waited months to speak their minds to Hillsborough County planners.
On Tuesday, they got their chance.
"We're a town," said Vicky Newby. "But we don't get treated like a town."
Newby was among more than 40 residents and county officials at the Planning Commission's initial Gibsonton community plan meeting, a two-hour discussion of Gibsonton's past, present and future, held Tuesday night at Gibsonton Elementary School.
Up for debate were the community features that distinguish Gibsonton from the rest of the county, including the carnival industry, tropical fish farms and recent environmental hazards posed by Cargill Crop Nutrition facilities.
"I think people that really don't know the area have a negative outlook on Gibsonton," said Dave Ramirez, program director at the Gardenville Recreation Center on Symmes Road. "But there are positives here."
Tuesday's session follows a year of similar Planning Commission meetings in Ruskin, Riverview and Apollo Beach. Those areas, along with Wimauma and Sun City Center, are being studied as part of the Planning Commission's SouthShore Areawide Systems Plan, designed to give citizens more of a say in how the county plans for growth and development.
The Gibsonton meeting differed from ones held in Ruskin, Riverview and Apollo Beach. Those communities' complaints were common _ more sidewalks and trees, less signage and fewer housing developments.
Gibsonton residents came prepared to discuss everything from turning the town into a tourist attraction to simply building a grocery store and bank.
"My fear is getting left out," Ramirez said. "You hear so much about SouthShore, SouthShore, SouthShore. You don't hear too much about Gibsonton."
Planners asked residents to list examples of Gibsonton's strengths, problems, opportunities for growth and potential threats.
Ian Swepson, who moved to Gibsonton from Tampa so his children could grow up in a more rural setting, said the community needs a chamber of commerce and a way to ensure cleaner waterways.
Others said the plan should focus on needs of Gibsonton's best-known residents: carnival workers.
"It has a reputation," says William Vega. "You tell anyone you live in Gibsonton, they know it right away as Carnytown."
Says Harold Mundry, the owner of a festival equipment rental business: "Capitalize on that. Have tourists."
The Planning Commission's Daniel Santos, who's heading the Gibsonton plan, was surprised by the spirited dialogue between planners and residents.
"I think we captured a lot more information than I thought we could have," he said.
The Planning Commission will have at least three open house sessions, including one by the end of the year, to fill people in on the plan's progress.
A follow-up to this week's meeting is slated for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Gibsonton Elementary School. There, planners will give residents about 20 cameras to photograph things they like and don't like about the community. A similar program was a success in Riverview, and Santos thinks it can be even more successful in Gibsonton.
_ Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlinsptimes.com.
IF YOU GO: Residents who missed Tuesday's Gibsonton community plan meeting won't have to wait long to catch up. The Planning Commission has scheduled a follow-up forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Gibsonton Elementary, 7723 Gibsonton Drive. For more information, call the Planning Commission at 273-3774.