WIMAUMA — A vision for a new Wimauma grew distorted in less than 24 hours.
On March. 6, a standing room only crowd of more than 140 people jammed the Wimauma Elementary School cafeteria to hear about the years-long process of trying to redevelop the area largely populated by lower wage earners, about three quarters of whom are Hispanic.
The following day, county commissioners had a chance to activate the plan as intended as they considered a rezoning request, but flubbed it, some residents said.
The community is seeking to upgrade the area’s infrastructure, redevelop the hamlet’s small downtown, grow employment and bring better educational and housing opportunities for residents. Those are the top priorities listed in Wimauma’s rewritten community plan, approved by the county commission in fall 2021. The updated plan — a county-endorsed playbook on how the community will grow — came amid rapid residential development in what primarily had been a rural area with an agriculture-based economy.
The area is morphing into a burgeoning suburbia with new residential subdivisions stretching along State Road 674, just a few miles east of Interstate 75, in Hillsborough’s southernmost region. But, new households don’t necessarily translate to new jobs. The area’s population doubled to 9,000 residents over a 12-year period ending in 2019, but only 67 new jobs were created over nearly the same time frame, according to data in the community plan.
A day after the public meeting, the chance to begin reshaping the community’s economy in the downtown district landed in front of county commissioners.
Residents and community advocates said they hoped for retail or some other commercial use at the corner of SR 674 and West Lake Drive to complement the downtown redevelopment plan. Instead, a commission majority approved the zoning change so the property can be used for a self-storage business of up to 100,000 square feet. Commissioner Michael Owen, whose district includes Wimauma, dissented.
The site, owned by a company controlled by residential developer Eisenhower Property Group, sits catty corner to an existing mini-warehouse business.
The company’s land-use attorney, Kami Corbett, said the owners had little alternative. Additional road lanes are planned at the intersection to accommodate future traffic tied to three new schools on West Lake Drive. That meant no retail or other uses that would generate large volumes of traffic were permissible at the intersection, she said.
Some community members weren’t buying it.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Gil Martinez of the Wimauma Community Development Corp., a non-profit that began in 1960 and now works to bring “sound and balanced growth” to the area.
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“But, it’s also a rallying moment for the community because we do not want to allow this type of development to set the precedent for what will be happening next,” he said.
Citing transportation as a hinderance to redevelopment options, as Corbett did, isn’t unfamiliar. It was a much-discussed topic at the community meeting.
“We are held hostage in our own neighborhood,” said Cynthia Wilburn, 60, who lives in Southshore Bay.
The entrance to that development fronts the southside of SR 674 and Wilburn told of motorists being unable to exit the neighborhood because of heavy truck traffic on the two-lane east-west highway.
The Florida Department of Transportation already took notice of safety concerns on that state road. New crosswalks are planned at 4th and 7th streets to aid pedestrians, and recommendations on adding so-called safe street enhancements are expected by the end of the year.
One resident asked how people could be sure that future property tax revenue would be spent to benefit Wimauma instead of being allocated elsewhere in the county. Another resident grumbled the question largely went unanswered.
Nobody mentioned the idea of the county forming a Community Redevelopment Agency that would let growing tax revenues from higher property values stay within Wimauma. A prerequisite to setting up such a tax district is designating the area as a slum or blighted.
“Wimauma historically has it and it’s still there. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Martinez said in an interview. “We don’t have bus services. We don’t have internet. You can’t bring a laundromat out there” because of an inability to connect to central water service.
“We’re faulty in many ways.”
Paul Cilia, 42, of the Vista Palms neighborhood raised another concern at the community meeting — identity. He said he feared the focus on redevelopment and sought-after economic prosperity eventually would push out existing residents as the area gentrified.
“Money’s great,” he said, “but without people and culture, it’s nothing.”