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New report to serve as blueprint to revitalize Tampa's troubled university area

TAMPA — Spread out across 146 pages are all the troubles facing a troubled part of town — the area around the University of South Florida that is labeled, hopefully, the University Area/Tampa Innovation District.

Drug use, drug sales, the gangs and guns that come with them, break-ins, thefts, domestic violence, a run-down look.

The report's litany of woes may not be new to those familiar with the area, but it is comprehensive, and — as an action plan — suggests first steps toward turning it all around.

One of them is to name more of the smaller communities inside the sprawling 25,000-acre area to take some of the sting from one of them — the derisive, transient label "Suitcase City."

The $112,000 report, prepared by Ken Stapleton & Associates of Miami, will serve as a road map for a community-based effort, said Mark Sharpe, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner and head of the Tampa Innovation Alliance — a partnership of businesses and institutions working to revitalize the area.

Hillsborough County paid for the report. It is available at the innovation alliance website

Sharpe said he was struck by two findings — the integral role played by University Mall in the community and the need for street lightning throughout the area, bordered by Busch Boulevard on the south, Bearss Avenue on the north, Interstate 75 on the east and Interstate 275 on the west.

Another highlight: As blighted as parts of the area may be, its reputation is even worse.

"More attention to the details of the physical environment can have a major impact on both real and perceived safety," the report says.

Here are some of the report's suggestions for improvement:

• Create "Clean & Green Teams" to deal with trash, weeds, graffiti and other physical signs of disorder using specially trained employees and volunteers.

• Establish partnerships for improvements to University Mall, including exterior physical upgrades on the site and nearby pathways and hosting signature community events.

• Install solar lighting for lots and homes.

• Develop a strategic communication plan for real and perceived safety issues.

• More recreational and community service opportunities for children and youth.

The report was written over a six-month period and included interviews and discussions with major stakeholders, including Hillsborough County, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, the innovation alliance, and the University Area Community Development Corporation Partnership Coalition — a 170-member organization of social service providers, businesses, faith-based organizations, law enforcement and residents seeking to improve the area.

"This is a lot of thinking differently — having new ideas to make small tweaks," said Sarah Combs, executive director of the coalition, who coordinated with the consulting company. One example is the way street lights shine onto an area or the type of bulbs used.

"We wanted some things that are not that expensive and not that time invasive."

Combs said she plans to have the major partners meet this month to discuss next steps. They also will explore hiring a project manager.

The partners also plan a major kickoff in early summer, as suggested in the report.

"If we do this together, we can make a huge change," Combs said.

One step toward the area's transformation, Sharpe said, came Tuesday when the Hillsborough County Commission approved plans for a six-story student housing development at University Boulevard and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

"This is the first step and those residents will be right by the mall," Sharpe said.

The report compliments social service agencies working in the area and the partnerships they have formed, suggesting they focus on mental health and homeless services — two concerns raised during interviews.

The report also identifies transportation as a challenge of particular concern in an area where 30 percent of residents do not own their own vehicle.

"There is a clear vision to transform the plan area to a vibrant, dense, diverse, and urban place," the report says. "To be successful, a terrific transit experience will be needed."