On the Ground: Tour highlights assets, opportunities in Wimauma

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Wimauma is a largely ignored rural part of the rapidly growing South Shore area of Hillsborough County that is attracting investments in commercial and residential real estate and the attention of people looking for a slice of paradise between Sarasota and Tampa.

But the spotlight shone bright on the multi-cultural, traditionally agricultural community June 20, when about 30 local, regional and state thought leaders converged on a local church to take a bus tour to see Wimauma’s existing assets and opportunities for creating good-paying jobs, childcare facilities, new affordable housing and public transportation.

“I’m just so happy that people were able to see what we need,” says Margaret Claritt, a retired schoolteacher who serves on the Wimauma CDC board of directors and one of the tour narrators.

The two-hour tour included visits to Enterprising Latinas, a nonprofit training center for women at the Beth-El Farm Worker Ministry; Wimauma Elementary School, which dates back to 1926; and the Bethune Park Boys & Girls Club, which is in the middle of a $3 million capital campaign to expand and serve more children.

The tour starting from Wholesome Church on U.S. 301 near SR 674, then south to Parish in Manatee County, back through the heart of Wimauma’s central village and east to Diehl Farms enabled riders to see the vast geography and diversity of people and places.

Among the highlights discussed: the Florida Railroad Museum helped people visualize the historic roots of Wimauma where the community began; a farmworkers’ housing camp, traditionally lower-income neighborhoods for families, new planned communities for retirees and others that are under construction, the local Walmart, Aldi grocery, Spanish restaurants, Post Office and Habitat for Humanity-built homes.

Seeing the extent of the need

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, says he found the tour “very informative.” 

“I wish more public officials would take this tour. It would be extremely eye opening,” he says.  “I knew there was a need. I never realized the extent of that need until today.”

Wimauma has some 6,373 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, with almost 80 percent of Hispanic heritage. The median household income between 2011 and 2015 was $25,717. See On The Ground in Wimauma: Ready or not, transformational change is on the way.

As developers move to the South Shore for more affordable land, the community has begun working on ways to help direct their future -- with help from Allegany Franciscan Ministries, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and other interested individuals and organizations. 

In the meantime, some farm workers have switched to careers in landscaping or domestic work. Housing developments are sprouting up, and U.S. 301 is being widened in the area for the anticipated influx of people coming down the road.

It didn’t take long for some of the attendees to come up with ideas to address community concerns about job creation, affordable housing, childcare, educational needs and transportation. Many shared ideas with each other later and are continuing to follow up.

“We’re looking forward to trying to address that need for affordable housing,” says Joey Henderson, Community Development Manager, Marketing & PR, for the Florida Home Partnership. The nonprofit organization already has built homes in the area at Hidden Creek “There’s still a lot more work to be done.”

Bryce Bowden, a South Shore commercial real estate associate for Turner Cole Company in Tampa, says he will be checking on the possibility of having commercial developers do low-cost housing too for potential tax incentives.

Jennifer Webb of Think Tampa Bay is already working with Enterprising Latinas on an alternative bus service for the area. She and others suggest a successful passenger line would be a “game changer for this area.” 

Crist has a list of things to follow up on, including potential public as well as private funding to upgrade the Bethune Park Boys & Girls Club facility, which is owned by the county, as well as an alternative Uber-like transportation system proposed by Enterprising Latinas.

“I want to look at how we can help them grow that [transportation system],” Crist adds.

Opportunities for knowledge transfer

Wimauma might even be featured in an independent film, says George Zweirko, Executive Creative Director and one of the principals of Ybor City-based Three Chairs Productions, who plans follow up by talking about the possibilities with his partners. 

“Wimauma has a lot of great history for us to touch on,” he says. “No one really had an understanding of the economic disparity that existed and the current state of some of the residents there.” 

If Three Chairs proceeds, cameras could be rolling by the fall and a filming completed in a matter of weeks. The film could tell Wimauma’s story wherever it goes, whether that is on an economic development website, social media, in front of benefactors and others, or the independent film festival circuit.

What the residents are learning in Wimauma can be transferred to other emerging neighborhoods such as around North Tampa’s university area. “They have the same kinds of problems,” Webb notes. “There’s a lot of opportunity for knowledge transfer.”

The tour, part of 83 Degrees Media’s On the Ground initiative underwritten by Allegany Franciscan Ministries and the Common Good Initiative, was designed to connect Wimauma CDC board members with Tampa Bay Area and Florida lenders, developers, educators, entrepreneurs, business leaders, nonprofits, government reps and others who can help spur positive change for the rural community.

Nancy Vaughn of White Book Agency in Tampa helped 83 Degrees coordinate the tour's logistics.

“We are very appreciative and invite our tour colleagues and friends to join us in helping to make Wimauma a place of endless opportunities and prosperity,’’ says Jackie Brown, a Wimauma CDC board member who grew up there. “Great things are happening in Wimauma and we look forward to your support in making even greater things happen. The possibilities are endless.’’

The group met and reconvened for discussion at Wholesome Church, a uniquely domed place of Christian worship that has been eyed by a developer interested in buying into the neighborhood along U.S. Highway 301 between Big Bend Road and State Road 674. After a public appeal for help, the church reached a loan agreement to purchase the property by June 30 - and keep it from being raised to build a housing subdivision.

Afterward, Lead Pastor Carlos Irizarry described the tour as “a good start.” “We were able to network and work together for the betterment of Wimauma.”

Here is a link to ABC Action News report on the Wimauma bus tour.

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune