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University area neighborhoods of North Tampa prepare for transformation

The pedestrian bridge over Fowler Ave. connects USF and MOSI.

World of Beer on Fowler Ave.

Crossover Church on Fowler Ave.

What does the future hold for emerging neighborhoods surrounding the University of South Florida in north Tampa?

Nearly $4 million in federal funds is being pumped into the community for new job opportunities just as businesses are gearing up for construction and expansions along the Fowler Avenue corridor.

It’s all part of a push by the Tampa Innovation Alliance and local leaders who want to see the neighborhoods near the University of South Florida (USF) and businesses along Fowler Avenue spring to life after years of economic challenges. 

Sarah Combs, CEO of the University Area Community Development Corporation, points out that the Tampa area recently snagged one of 39 TechHire grants from the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“We’re beyond elated,” she says of the $3.8 million grant that will help train neighborhood residents for high-skill jobs being created by Alliance partners. “It will open doors for people to go into IT careers.” 

There are more than 1,000 medical and technical jobs that could be created in the USF area over the next few years. 

“Whether they’re unemployed or underemployed,’’ Combs says, people can benefit from this by helping them discover new skills sets or further develop those they already have.” 

The TechHire grant is an important component in the overall redevelopment of the USF area. 

“It’s a testament that the community residents are part of the plan, she says. “It’s our first big win as community partners.” 

In addition, the University Area CDC received a $35,000 grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation in late July to assist with operational costs, such as offering career education courses. 

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, says the funds are essential for helping bring not just high-paying jobs to the region but also helping fill those positions with the people who already live in the USF-area community. 

“We are building a live, work, play, study and stay innovation district supported by public and private partnerships which enable every person to participate in the emerging tech economy,” he says. “The TechHire grant is just one tool in our toolbox for providing people the skills necessary to change our community and the world for better.” 

Diversity matters in job creation

While the prospect of new medical and technical job opportunities is exciting to community leaders, local residents are just as happy to see more retail and service jobs enter the fold. Pennsylvania-based Wawa food market settled roots at the southwest corner of Fowler Avenue and 30th Street in 2013, and World of Beer opened less than a block to the west last year. This past spring, Starbucks coffeehouse opened a location at the southeast corner of Fowler and 15th Street. And that’s just the beginning. 

“We’re clearly seeing the success of World of Beer, and we saw it with Starbucks -- small projects in their own right making big impacts on the community,” says Sharpe. 

Another project that could also have a big impact on the USF area would be the potential relocation of the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI Tampa) to downtown Tampa's Channel District redevelopment project spearheaded by Tampa Bay Lightning National Hockey League team owner Jeff Vinik.

“Even if a USF football stadium takes over the [current MOSI] site, that’s only 10 to 15 acres of an 80-acre area, so there is a chance to make it ‘part of’ something else, but it is a matter of knowing what that ‘part of’ is.” At this time, he emphasizes, there is no stadium planned for the MOSI site. 

The elevated pedestrian walkway that crosses Fowler Avenue to connect USF to MOSI and office buildings to the south is more than an existing capital improvement for whatever development takes over the MOSI site. 

“We want that bridge to be a statement, connecting everybody together,” Sharpe says

Those connections are essential to Sharpe and the North Tampa business partners trying to transform and uplift the long-time low-income neighborhoods.

The Tampa Innovation Alliance is an organization that boasts members such as the University of South Florida, Busch Gardens, University Mall, Moffitt Cancer Center and Florida Hospital

The jurisdictional scope of the organization covers some 25,000 acres in northern Hillsborough County bordered by Bearss Avenue to the north, Busch Boulevard on the south, and Interstates 75 and 275 on the east and west, respectively. 

“Ground zero is at McKinley Drive and Fowler Avenue, and we want to transform it as a gateway,” says Sharpe. “We’re on the move, and my mission is to help accelerate the plans and take advantage of our [Alliance] partners. Those anchors, over the last year and a half, have been working together and aligning their mission statements.”

University Mall undergoes transformation

While business leaders and USF football fans can envision new uses for the present MOSI site, major changes are already afoot two miles up Fowler Avenue at University Mall. In Fall 2016, Orlando-based Miller’s Ale House and Chicago’s popular hotdog and hamburger restaurant Portillo’s will open adjacent to one another in a large outparcel location on the southwest side of the University Mall parking lot. 

“We finally got dirt moving!” enthuses Patrice Gingras, the general manager of University Mall, about the construction of the two restaurants. “It was a jubilant day in the [management] office when the first shovels were turned on those two lots.”

Gingras has been with the mall for nine years and in the past year worked her way up to the general management position. It’s a new era for the 1.3-million-square-foot mall, which opened as University Square Mall in August 1974 and is seeing new signs of life in recent months. In addition to the new restaurants on the southern outskirts of the mall property, there are new developments happening within the mall. 

This past spring, a 13,500-square-foot space once occupied by Old Navy and B. Dalton Booksellers showcased a traveling exhibit featuring the work and art of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. 

In recent months, University Mall owner RD Management unveiled extensive redevelopment plans that include converting portions of the interior shopping corridor into an open-air space. Heavy demolition and reconstruction work could soon be ahead at the mall.   

University Mall currently has more than 130 stores, including five anchors: Sears, Macys, Burlington Coat Factory, Dillard’s outlet store, and Studio Movie Grill. 

“We’ve been getting many Mom-and-Pop retailers in here,” says Gingras, who notes the mall’s eclectic mix of tenants has been helpful for attracting a diverse clientele. “Getting the right mix of retail has been a challenge,” she says.

Still, Gingras and others in the Tampa Innovation Alliance envision the mall becoming a destination. “We want it to be a place where you can shop, dine, play and even enjoy art.” 

A higher calling for some

As CEOs, presidents, landowners and government officials work to create change and nurture progress along Fowler Avenue, there’s at least one local who’s turning the plans for change over to an even higher power. Pastor Tommy “Urban D.” Kyllonen is an author and hip-hop artist who is affectionately known by his congregation as the “Rappin’ Pastor.” The former Philadelphian oversees the Crossover Church in a 43,000-square-foot building that was once a Toys R’ Us store. 

“I had mix tapes of The Fresh Prince in the 80s,” he remembers. “I felt God saying I gave you gifts and talents and to use them. Hip hop is great for telling a narrative, but it doesn’t always provide a solution,” he says. “Hip-hop often talks about drugs, violence, and degrading women. I wanted to use rap to glorify God.” 

“Pastor Tommy,” as he is often addressed by his followers, never intended to stay in Florida after meeting Lucy, a New York native who would become his wife. The two met while they both attended Southeastern University in Lakeland. They had planned on returning to the Northeast, but there were few opportunities for them back home. “No doors were open up north,” he says.  

The couple’s future in Tampa was all but sealed in 1996 when the two were hired on a part-time basis at a much smaller version of Crossover Church near Lowry Park Zoo. The couple oversaw the youth ministry program and grew it into a popular initiative that drew sizable crowds. Within six years, Pastor Tommy was Crossover Church’s lead pastor. The job turned into a mission that unfolded in the beleaguered North Tampa neighborhood once pejoratively called Suitcase City, a name that stemmed from the community’s largely transient population. 

“We have a very diverse congregation,” says Pastor Tommy, who moved his church to its current location at 1235 East Fowler Avenue in 2010. “Some people walk or ride their bikes here. It’s multiethnic, multi-class – very organic.” He continues, “a church like Crossover – we have doctors, athletes, working-class, small business owners, homeless.” 

The diversity of the congregation, which consists of many individuals and families from the USF area, fuels the pastor’s message. “Jesus said love your neighbor like you love yourself,” Pastor Tommy remarks. “In Tampa, your neighbor isn’t always going to look like yourself.” He describes the composition of the church’s congregation. “It’s 40 percent Hispanic, 40 percent black, 20 percent white, and there are many mixed couples.” The unique house of worship was once ranked the 13th Most Innovative Church in America according to Outreach Magazine -- it’s a title of distinction that seems to aptly describe a church that stands in the heart of the Tampa Innovation Alliance District. 

“Ultimately, the drive for this church is from our creator,” he says. “We want people to feel hope.”

History of USF area helps shape what’s next

Fowler Avenue was one of the hottest retail rows in North Tampa during the 1980s, but the strip fell on hard times as the 1990s progressed into the 2000s. That’s when many businesses along Fowler moved north to serve growing suburbia and new shopping centers in Lutz, Wesley Chapel and New Tampa. Some became victims of corporate-wide bankruptcies. 

Such once-vibrant retail buildings were vacated; some warehouse-sized shells remained empty for years. Even University Mall, one of the top regional malls in the 1970s and ‘80s, suffered a series of economic blows during a relatively short period. 

Back then, the surrounding neighborhoods were populated predominately by working-class and middle-income residents, as well as college students attending nearby University of South Florida (USF). 

As the 1980s wore into the 1990s, those populations moved north and west, and many of the A-list stores along the Fowler Avenue corridor followed suit. It was a textbook example of the past when flight to farther-flung suburbs left the door open for poverty to fill in behind. 

Combs, Sharpe and other community leaders plan to reverse that flow by turning their vision into reality.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

 Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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