EPA grants help community renewal efforts on both sides of Tampa Bay

In the at-risk neighborhood west of the University of South Florida, the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corporation works to renew a community and improve the quality of life.

A new infusion of federal funding is going to accelerate that effort.

The University Area CDC recently won a $300,000 Brownfield grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to go toward assessments and clean-up of potentially contaminated properties the organization owns or seeks to acquire for uses such as affordable housing, a community garden, an open-air market, and a cultural campus linking residents to service agencies that can help them.

“We’re trying to bring in growth and opportunity to the residents who live here, but how do you do that when you have really hard conditions in that community,” says University Area CDC CEO and Executive Director Sarah Combs. “We’ve put together a neighborhood transformation strategy that shows how we’re going to change this community from the inside out, starting with the seven-acre Harvest Hope Park we are building and then adopting the blocks around the park. This funding is going to be a game changer for our community and that effort. A lot of the properties in our community that we’re trying to acquire under our real estate arm are either considered brownfields or really are brownfields, meaning they either have perceived contamination or really are contaminated. In order for us to be smart about our land acquisitions, we need to do environmental assessments of those properties. This funding will allow us to do that more quickly.”

Combs says some of the money will go to remediate two adjacent parcels the group has already acquired near Fletcher Avenue, a process that could have happened months ago if there had been funding in place. A community outreach campaign will determine the use of that property, which could include recreational greenspace, attainable housing, or a commercial use benefitting the neighborhood.

As the University Area CDC looks to revitalize the area one block at a time moving out from the park -- efforts that include infrastructure improvements such as water and sewer lines, street lighting, sidewalks, and new modular homes for attainable housing -- the EPA money will also go to assess properties that may have contamination from petroleum or other pollutants. Combs says in some cases, the assessments may give the property a clean bill of health, removing the stigma of contamination and allowing redevelopment to proceed. In cases where a developer is looking to develop attainable housing for residents in the neighborhood, Combs says the grant monies could fund contamination assessments and serve as an "economic booster" for redevelopment.

Across the Bay, Pinellas County government has also secured a $300,000 Brownfield grant to assess contamination on fallow lots in the Lealman area as part of county government's community redevelopment strategy there.

“This Brownfield Grant provides funding for us to assess stigmatized properties that otherwise are ignored during redevelopment efforts,” Teri Hasbrouck, the environmental program coordinator for Pinellas County Real Estate Management, says in a news release. “We are improving the health of the community by identifying properties that need to be cleaned up, sustainably redeveloped, and participate in the economic growth of the Lealman Community Redevelopment Area.”

Here are links to learn more about the organizations and initiatives in this story: University Area Community Development Corporation, Pinellas County, Lealman Community Redevelopment Area.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather, and Florida's wealth of outdoor festivals.