Bettering The 'Hood Attracts Future Tampa Leaders

As a young man in New York, Attorney Anthony Garcia snagged small roles in TV shows "Law and Order'' and "The Sopranos.'' Not bad hanging out with the star-studded crowd.

But now back home in Tampa, his career revolves around practicing real law as a partner in the Alvarez Garcia Law Firm. And his attentions outside of work are focused on family and improving upscale Bayshore Beautiful, a South Tampa neighborhood. He has tackled small projects in the neighborhood and is a volunteer with Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful. But he says he wants to be more involved.

"I had such a positive experience (with Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful), I felt I wanted to create a good environment for my family," he says. "I wanted to take ownership of the environment for them."

So, once a week Garcia joins his fellow classmates for a session of the Mayor's Neighborhood University. They watch as Tampa police officers and fire fighters practice their professions by staging the rescue of a hostage, exploding fake bombs, dousing a car fire and releasing a crash victim with the Jaws of Life.

It isn't done for TV but it is high drama for "make-believe" exercises at the city's 34th Street law enforcement training center, and a learning lesson for future neighborhood leaders.

About 65 community-motivated citizens are more than half way through a 12-week course envisioned by Mayor Bob Buckhorn and launched in September. It is an innovative, hands-on experience that Buckhorn says will empower neighborhoods and mentor the next generation of leaders.

The inaugural class participants are bankers, attorneys, ministers, business owners, nonprofit directors, the self-employed, neighborhood association presidents and community leaders.

City officials are encouraged by the level of interest in the university. More than 150 people enrolled initially; so many that the city split them into two groups. The first Neighborhood University graduation will be in February; the second university will follow soon after.

For Garcia, the university clarifies city challenges and shows what city employees go through. "The bottom line is people collectively determine the direction of the city," Garcia says. "It's up to us to be vigilant to meet needs and interact with government. We all have work together."

Not all of the classes are as intense as the explosive lesson at the training center. Each session is held at a different city location, including City Hall and the Tampa Convention Center. Classes cover topics of city finance, how to use social media, how to build community relationships and behind-the-scenes looks at city departments, such as public works and neighborhood relations. A bus tour gives students an up-close view of where fellow classmates live and work.

"We wanted to make it informative but not a town hall," says Jake Slater, the city's administrator of neighborhood enhancement. "We want it up close. What's going on in Tampa? What can we showcase? We want to try to get more people involved and sharing new ideas. We're trying to develop a sense of camaraderie."

And, students say they count the real benefits of the university in the connections they are making to city officials and classmates who share their life experiences.

"We're all very friendly and that's something I like," says 20-year-old Javier Narvaez-Collado. "We have a good group who give opinions and talk to others."

As a high school student, he helped a University of Tampa professor engaged in drug research for breast cancer. Now he is at the University of South Florida deciding between medicine and political science as a career. He lives with his family in Belmont Heights in East Tampa and volunteers with a youth group at a local church. He was a summer intern at U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's office when he learned about the Neighborhood University.

"It sounded like a great way to get to know how the City of Tampa works," he says. "And a great way to learn about future leadership development."

Responding To Change

Cassandra Hall, 53, spotted the notice for the university on the city's website when she was checking information about a city recreation center. She is a member of the Carver City/Lincoln Gardens Civic and Homeowners Association in the West Shore area.

A lot of new development is encroaching into the neighborhood where she has lived for 25 years. Retail stores,
restaurants and high-rise offices and apartment complexes, she says, seem as if they are walling off the subdivision, founded after World War II. A state highway widening project has sliced away land, limiting entry
and exit to Lois Avenue and Spruce Street.

"I felt like I could be a future leader for the area," Hall says. "I wanted to know about all the buildings going up around us. It's a bunch of big old conglomerates and apartments. Rents are so high I couldn't live there if I lost my home. I couldn't live in the neighborhood."

Another classmate is 36-year-old Qui Phan. Dragon boat races are his passion and in 2012 he competed in the Dragon Boat Club/Crew World Championships in Hong Kong as a member of Tampa Electric Company's dragon boat team. He is a senior environmental technician at TECO's Bayside Power Station.

He moved to Bowman Heights in West Tampa about two years ago.

"My neighborhood doesn't have a neighborhood association," he says. "I was interested in learning from all the presidents (of civic/neighborhood associations) what are their strengths and weaknesses. And if I need something done, how do I do that. It's been very informative."

He wants to explore the possibility of establishing a neighborhood association. But if that doesn't happen, Phan says. "I kind of want camaraderie for the neighborhood where people look out for one another."

Bettering The Community

Entrepreneur Mike Gibson, 37, is a West Point graduate who grew up in New York, is also in the class. He moved to Tampa about 10 years ago. His 2-year-old company, Tectus Oil, sells lubricants to the automotive industry and industrial companies.

But he is committed also to his neighborhood, Sterling Manor, a subdivision in Tampa Palms, where Gibson is president of Sterling Manor's homeowners' association. "I went into this from the standpoint of bettering my community," he says. "I'm focusing on making sure my community thrives and has what it needs to be successful."

Likewise Bayshore area resident Clinton Johnston, 47, loves challenges. He moved to India and founded a boutique investment bank. Four years later he sold it and moved back to Tampa Bay where he worked for a time with a Christian-based property management company that seeks to buy and rent properties to low-income individuals and families. "I did not know so many people had so many problems," Johnston says. "What can I do in my spare time to help other neighborhoods?"

Johnston now is director of Benchmark International Company Sales, and ready to take on new challenges, perhaps fueled on by the neighborhood university

"I wanted to be involved and see it and feel it," says Johnston. "This is a chance to see how all the city government works."

And a chance to hang out with some really interesting people.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.