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‘Paint the Town’ is more than beautification for community organizers

Community service event is part of effort to bring people to University Area

TAMPA — For the past eight years, hundreds of volunteers have flocked to the University Area Community Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the annual Paint The Town day of service.

But for Sarah Combs, director of the University Area Community Development Center, the daylong event is more than an opportunity for beautification. It’s part of the organization’s strategy to change the image of the community, she said.

“Fortunately we’re not called ‘Suitcase City’ anymore — well, not as much,” Combs said. “It’s mostly coming from people who have never visited the community. ... I think that opportunity to come meet the residents and walk the community is important and helps to remove that stereotype.”

The event, which starts at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday and in past years has drawn up to 800 volunteers, will allow volunteers to complete projects such as planting hedges, painting trash cans and repainting homes that don’t comply with code enforcement standards.

“It’s wonderful,” said Damian Gordon, who lives in the area and has volunteered in previous years. “It creates a big impact in this community. It’s needed.”

The beautification projects, Combs said, are part of a series of recent efforts to increase resident investment in the area.

In November, the University Area CDC opened Harvest Hope Park with a playground and community garden for residents to buy fresh produce. They have also been buying property to build affordable town homes and modular housing units. So far they have bought 20 parcels of land and have partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build 10 homes.

Related: RELATED: Sarah Combs takes holistic approach to improving University Area

Last year they held the Uptown Music Festival, and have a second festival planned for March.

“The purpose of that event was to bring people here,” Combs said. “If music can bring them here, if they get here, then they say, ‘wow, I’m here and what I thought is not really what I’m seeing.’ People want to be more a part of when they see the progress that’s happening.”

Combs said the event also serves to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of inclusiveness by reducing the stigma of low-income neighborhoods, where residents know and rely on each other.

“This community is more of a community than I’ve ever known,” Combs said.

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IF YOU GO: Paint The Town day of service

Where: University Area Community Center, 14013 N 22nd Street

When: Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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