TAMPA — It's less than a week before his 85th birthday, but the spry bounce in James Hammond's walk and the ease of his smile belie his years.
The youthful aura reflects his enthusiasm about the latest chapter in a book of service the longtime civil rights activist has authored throughout his life.
"I'm a vegan," Hammond said. "I've been a vegetarian for 30 years and a vegan for seven years. I had a portobello sandwich for lunch. I eat vegetables, fruits, nuts. I don't get sick. I stay healthy and I feel fabulous."
More than diet has Hammond feeling fabulous these days. He beams because the nonprofit he co-founded 26 years ago, Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan, is rising from a troubled past and embarking on a new project that has been years in the making.
The organization will transform a collection of storage units on 50th Street just north of Hillsborough Avenue into a co-working and collaboration exchange and a collection of incubators.
The project is the centerpiece of a bid to move away from solely relying on grants and embrace social entrepreneurship and fundraising for the nonprofit, which focuses on economic development, housing and health services.
On Tuesday, Veterans Day, it hosts the inaugural Founders' Gala, which will honor Hammond, a veteran who also happens to be celebrating his birthday, and the six other founders.
"I'm really excited about what's going on," Hammond said. "After 26 years, we're on the threshold of moving forward."
Hammond's life work always has centered on making changes so people didn't have to "go through what I went through to survive." Born in Tampa, he joined the Army ROTC at Hampton Institute and went on to become a lieutenant colonel.
After he retired from the service, he sparked a number of equality initiatives, filing a lawsuit against the University of Tampa that led to the school's integration, convincing GTE (now Verizon) to integrate its employee ranks and leading the "white hat patrol" that calmed rioters after the police shooting of Martin Chambers in 1967.
His work expanded in the decades that followed. In 2006, the Hillsborough County School Board honored Hammond by naming an elementary school after him.
"Did you know I have 700 kids?" Hammond quipped.
As for the Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan, known as THAP, Hammond envisioned just such a project as the one currently under construction when he co-founded the nonprofit in 1988. But he never forecast the controversy that arose in 2001.
Chet Luney, then the executive director of the nonprofit, helped Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake build a lavish house in exchange for city housing contracts. Both men were sentenced to prison.
However, THAP survived the scandal and under current CEO Jeanette Bradley and Derrick Blue, CEO of the nonprofit's housing subsidiary, the group seems poised to create a paradigm shift for the nonprofit.
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Bradley often refers to "new THAP" and speaks glowingly about how Hammond has always come back to THAP when it needed his assistance.
Both Bradley and Blue draw inspiration from the statesman.
"His life's purpose has been to make a difference," Blue said. "I want to make it happen for him so his labor is not in vain."
Plans call for the collaboration to be patterned after the Grind in New York — think Starbucks but with business support services.
Entrepreneurs will be able to rent the adjacent incubators for up to five years and preconstruction rates are $175 per month.
Hillsborough Community College will partner with THAP to offer classes at the site so aspiring business owners can earn entrepreneurial certificates.
Hammond says he never gave up on the vision of creating incubators, even when THAP endured those troubled times.
"Nothing slows me down," Hammond said. "We're going to make it happen."