1. Florida Politics

Three strong candidates vie for two Temple Terrace seats

TEMPLE TERRACE — The stalled Downtown Temple Terrace development, the high percentage of renters in the city, the need for more revenue and ways to improve the educational experience of the city's children are the issues fueling the race for two seats on the Temple Terrace City Council.

Three candidates — an incumbent, a community activist and a credit union executive — are competing in the Nov. 6 election to represent this city of 25,000. Council member Mary Jane Neale is running for re-election to one of the seats. The other seat is being vacated by Ronald A. Govin, who has reached his term limit. The two candidates with the most votes will take the two seats. The mostly volunteer job pays $3,470 a year.

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Neale, who grew up in Miami and moved to Temple Terrace 20 years ago, was elected to the council in 2008 and said she wants to stay on to see the Downtown Temple Terrace development finished. The City Council wants residential buildings with stores on the first floor in the planned complex of offices, apartments, stores, restaurants and a cultural arts center.

But representatives of the developer, Vlass Temple Terrace, have said it is difficult get a loan for such mixed-use projects and wants to build apartments on the first floor of the buildings, which could be converted to stores if and when businesses can be lured.

Neale wants to make sure Vlass tries its best to draw first-floor retailers before using the space for apartments. She has recommended having the developer rent out most of the apartments before giving up on the effort to attract the retailers. But she feels that the project should be completed as soon as possible.

"I think every day that passes, we lose tax revenue. And that, to me, is the second big issue for Temple Terrace, is supporting the city financially," she said. "Everybody who says, 'What is the hurry?' hasn't tried to balance the budget.''

The council has managed to balance the budget, but each year it has become more of a struggle as the decline in property values reduces revenue. But at the same time, Neale said the city needs more workers, more police officers and firefighters.

Neale has drawn criticism for her basic support of the Vlass plan, but she notes instances in which she has taken critics to coffee, told them her position and was able to change their minds.

"And I'm willing to talk to anybody about it," she said.

She thinks Vlass will do a high-quality job on the project. "To be honest with you, (Michael) Vlass is prideful,'' she said. "He puts his name only on top-notch stuff. And I don't think he's going to build anything that he's not proud of.''

Neale is not as concerned about the high percentage of renters in the city as her rivals are. She contends that while the city has many apartment buildings, the number of people renting houses and letting them deteriorate is not a cause for alarm.

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Longtime community activist Grant Rimbey said the city needs to do a better job of promoting itself, arguing that it has "been sleeping the last 30 years'' while competitive communities, particularly New Tampa, have drawn a lot of home buyers and the retailers that follow.

Rimbey, who grew up in Temple Terrace and is the project manager of an architectural firm, said he wants to fight crime on the borders of the town. He complained that people enter the city to commit break-ins and other crimes, then retreat back outside the city. He suggested that the city try to annex some of these areas to square the borders and allow Temple Terrace police to patrol them. In the meantime, he said the city should work closely with the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to step up patrols in the bordering areas.

As for the Downtown Temple Terrace project, Rimbey doubts that the developer will compromise enough on negotiations to "meet us in the middle.'' He pointed out that while Vlass Temple Terrace has resisted constructing the apartments with retail on the bottom, such a design was part of the contract "and they signed it.''

If the deal with Vlass falls through, he said, Temple Terrace will have to find a developer that has a lot of experience building and running such mixed-use residential buildings. And the city needs to expedite that process. "It's not like we can have a meadow down there forever."

The city's high percentage of renters has "all sorts of repercussions,'' he said, ranging from neighborhood upkeep to community involvement. When he's going door to door and takes along a list of registered voters, nine out of 10 times, he says, the nonvoters tend to be renters.

He said the city needs to try to improve the schools, particularly Riverhills Elementary, to bring in home buyers and thereby attract new retailers.

As a council member, he said, he would first try to appeal to the Hillsborough County School Board to readjust the attendance boundaries to keep Temple Terrace students in Temple Terrace schools. Many children who live in the city are bused to schools outside, while students from other parts of the county are bused in to Temple Terrace, he noted.

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Eddie Vance, a Temple Terrace resident for more than 30 years, said putting apartments over stores will work for Downtown Temple Terrace, but the city needs to first put "an attractor'' there — something that will draw not only Temple Terrace residents but people outside the city — and that would help draw retailers. He said the cultural arts center may be such a magnet.

He thinks the city has to get the project moving to solve the budget crunch. Vance, an executive with Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, said his background gives him the most experience working out budget issues.

"I have the fiscal policy background, the budgeting background. I work with homeowners on a daily basis, small businesses almost on a daily basis.''

Vance also stresses the need to keep Temple Terrace children in the city's schools, and thinks more can be done to improve school performance, since good schools attract home buyers.

Vance, a member of the city's school support committee, said Riverhills Elementary has made great strides. "Two years ago, the school was an F. Last year it was a D and missed a C by four points," he said. "That's a lot for just one year.''

He would like to get the state and county to make more free, voluntary prekindergarten programs available in the community. "From that you would see an uptick in the improvement of the schools,'' he said.

"It's probably a matter of promoting pride in the community, not only for the homeowners but all residents," he said. "I don't want to say there is one answer, but if we were able to get the redevelopment going, that would be one thing in the right direction."