Harvest Hope Park: Oasis of opportunity in one of Tampa's most challenging neighborhoods

Can a community with a long history of crime and poverty change from the inside out?

Harvest Home Park, under construction on North 20th Street, holds out that promise for residents of the blighted area west of the University of South Florida in north Tampa.
The $2.47 million project aims to attack poverty through promoting healthy lifestyles and wholesome recreation in a neighborhood that lacks both. The 7-acre park will include a community garden and healthy kitchen, sports fields and fitness trails, a fishing pond and dock. 

The park will be an oasis of verdant beauty amid one of the tougher neighborhoods in Tampa. The University Area’s median household income is $25,235 compared to $40,663 for Hillsborough County as a whole. More than 70 percent of the homes in the census designated unit are renter-occupied compared to 8.6 percent that are owner-occupied. Vacant homes account for the remainder.

“This neighborhood has the largest concentration of poverty in the Tampa Bay Area. It’s also the largest concentration of unemployment,” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who founded the University Area Community Development Corp., the developer of the park.

Building outward

The real test of the park’s success will be if it can stimulate positive change in the surrounding community. Sarah Combs, executive director of the University Area CDC, says the organization is moving on different fronts to meet that challenge, including intensive community outreach and connecting residents to available services in Hillsborough County.

“The park is really going to be the catalyst for change in this community,” Combs says. “We’re taking 7 acres in the heart of the community and building out from it.”

At one level, building outward involves recreational, educational and arts programs whose effects University Area CDC leaders hope will ripple outward to unite the community and attract investment from the private sector. 

But when Combs talks about building, she also means actual blocks and mortar. The association is buying vacant land around the park property with the intent of building affordable housing. Lots already acquired are marked by signs that say “Harvest Hope property.”

“So what people are starting to see and say is, ‘Wow! This block is changing,” Combs says.
Creating core of long-time residents

The affordable housing, with the park as a core, is an effort to provide some stability to a neighborhood often referred to as “Suitcase City,” because of the transitory nature of the residential population.
Despite the area’ challenges, many families make it out of the neighborhood, often with help from the government and the University Area CDC. But such examples of success are a double-edged sword, says Crist, the county commissioner who spearheaded the formation of the organization in the late 1990s.
“Families come in in distress and leave in prosperity,” Crist says. “We don’t mind being a classroom and incubator but there needs to be a certain level of sustainability to sustain and maintain the community.”

In other words, Crist, Combs and the many other members and partners of the University Area CDC want to see residents succeed and stay in the neighborhood, providing a steel coil of stability upon which to build future prosperity.

Park now in 2nd phase

The park is being built in four phases, the first of which -- the community garden, a teaching kitchen and the buying the land itself -- is complete. Phase 2, which includes lighting, a multipurpose sports field, is beginning now.

Still to come in Phase 3 is a fish pond with a dock, additional improvements to the playground and outdoor fitness stations. Phase 4 will be a new Harvest Hope Center, and $800,000 building that will incorporate a teaching kitchen, classrooms, multi-use meeting space and staff offices.

Residents who participated in community focus groups played a big role in what features were adopted in the final plans for the park, Combs says. For instance, University Area CDC planners didn’t realize that parents wanted an outdoor fitness area so they could work out while their kids romped in the park playground.
Similarly, a walking trail and a pond were added because of residents’ requests. A trail and fitness area are a big deal to people who can’t afford fitness club memberships, Combs says.

“We didn’t realize how important the pond was to them,” she says. “To have a dock to access that water and to have a place where they could feel that peace and serenity with the water was important.”

Shay Cardenas, who lives across the street from the park, says the pond has already been a Godsend for her husband Bryan. An avid fisherman, Bryan befriended a couple teenagers and is teaching them about fishing.
“He began to instruct them how to fish, how to rig their poles,” Shay Cardenas says. “I think it’s a great benefit that they are going to build a dock out there and give older kids something to do. Maybe they won’t get into so much trouble if they go over there and fish.”

The pond and walking trail are also attracting older residents who find the park a haven where they can exercise and socialize, says Ross Fabian, who lives a block from Harvest Home Park.

“I’m glad they put it there one block from my house,” Fabian says. “I go over there every day to talk to the older guys who sit in the park. The park gives them something to do.”

Fabian, who runs a youth football league at Cuscaden Park in Ybor City, says he takes kids from his neighborhood with him to practice because such programs are lacking in the University Area. Now, with construction of Harvest Home Park, Fabian hopes the park will foster activities so University Area kids can stay in their neighborhood to get healthy and safe recreation.

“This park is going to be important to this community for a long time,” Fabian says. “It’s going to give the kids and the adults something to look forward to.”

Outreach vital

No matter how beautiful and accessible, the park’s inside-out transformational aspect will only be successful through intense public outreach and grassroots buy-in, Combs says. University Area CDC studied the success of the Adopt a Block program in the Pinellas County community of Lealman, where volunteers knock on doors in poor neighborhoods and see what residents need.

The Harvest Home Park version, called Block by Block, will be much the same with minor tweaking. After just a few weeks of outreach, it was apparent residents need better access to services that can help them with healthcare, nutrition, education and employment.

“The issue we’re finding in this community is they need access for success,” Combs says. “They don’t know how to access the services. All these services are available but the residents don’t know about them.”

The park’s coming has been a long-awaited dream for Rosemarie Bryan-Melendez, a 13-year resident of the University Area. Bryan-Melendez, who says she has a master’s degree from USF in cyber security, has raised her three children in the area and feels a bond to the people and neighborhoods in the University area. 

She said she’s seen improvements during that time, especially a decrease in crime that is likely due in large part to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department’s decision to put a substation there. But there is much more that needs to be done, she says, especially in terms of jobs and better housing.

Harvest Hope Park can play a big part in stimulating those changes, she says.

“I believe it’s a way to get more people involved,” Bryan-Melendez says. “To get them aware of what we do in this community and how we are striving to make it a better community.” 

Read more articles by Mike Salinero.

Mike Salinero is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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