The largely Hispanic community of Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County has plenty of everything — in terms of challenges, that is. Poverty, language barriers, poor education, bad roads, a lack of job opportunities — these are only a few of the hurdles Wimauma faces in becoming more alive and self-sufficient. But a new plan that county government and local activists have made into reality offers ample reason for hope, provided local leaders work together on even the smallest incremental steps.
Officials gathered last month to celebrate the Wimauma Village Neighborhood Plan, a sweeping initiative the Hillsborough County commission approved unanimously in October to remake this south county region east of Sun City Center. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Juan Carlos Chavez reported, the plan cleared the way for Tarcila Pimentel to open the laundromat she has long imagined on land she owns along Wimauma’s main drag, State Road 674. Pimentel, a 55-year-old Guatemalan immigrant and mother of three children, plans to employ three or more people. “It has not been easy,” she said, “but now I am very hopeful of moving my project forward.”
Pimentel’s announcement is exactly what the Wimauma plan envisions — small-business startups that churn more money through the local economy, building a stronger and more sustainable community.
Farming continues to be the largest land use category in Wimauma, a largely rural area. But big tracts of native and agricultural land in south county have fallen to suburban development. That has hollowed out job opportunities and investment; over the last two decades, for example, the Wimauma area outpaced the county’s growth rate overall, but suffered huge job losses in agriculture that never translated to other industries. Residents here spend disproportionately more on housing and transportation, and retail spending by Wimauma households is about two-thirds the county average. Nearly one in four people here live in poverty and 44 percent of those 25 and older lack a high school degree. One-fourth the workforce is over 55 years old. And with 76 percent of the population identifying as Hispanic (compared to about 30 percent countywide), language barriers compound the search for new economic opportunities.
The county plan envisions “an affordable, walkable community connected by a network of trails with thriving local businesses and farmers markets along a porch-like main street.” To that end, it calls for expanding water and sewer service for commercial development. Broader internet service. New sidewalks, parks and bike trails. Improved bus service and streetscaping. Live/work units in the central business district to create lively destinations. And new efforts to broadly improve the area’s quality of life, from expanding housing rehab programs to reducing the number of dead-end streets.
The plan would also foster cooperation between government agencies, private industry and nonprofits. It calls for co-locating schools, parks, libraries and fire stations and opening up school resources such as libraries and recreation fields to broader public use. To foster greater integration, gated subdivisions would be banned, and developments of 50 units or more would be required to set aside open space and consult with the school district about potential campus sites. The plan would also bring together a range of child care, after school, Spanish-language and other social programs under a more workable umbrella, giving taxpayers and service providers a bigger bang for the buck.
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The plan, for sure, is aspirational, and it will require sustained commitment. But what’s wrong with that? Its comprehensive scope and attention to detail will help entrepreneurs plan their business. And the effort has a particularly strong advocate in Commissioner Mariella Smith, who appreciates Wimauma’s desire to maintain its character. This is an admirable exercise in community-building that sets a foundation for progress.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.