Opportunity knocks: Shaping the future of Wimauma

Carmen Vela
For 33 years, Good Samaritan Mission has made its home on 10.5 acres along Balm Wimauma Road in south Hillsborough County. But as fields give way to homes around it, the mission is planning to relocate.

“Some of the students that come here have to catch a ride with somebody else,” says Pastor William “Bill’’ Cruz Jr., the mission’s Executive Director. “Some of them pay other people to give them a ride to come over here. ... I thought it was sad.”

If you don’t drive or have access to a car in Wimauma, you may struggle to find a way to class, work or a doctor’s office. Some pay dearly, $20 or $30 or more for a trip. Or they take to the sidewalks or the shoulders of local roads.

“People are making money selling rides,” Pastor Bill says. “Sometimes they tend to be pricey.”

So he plans to sell the mission and downsize. He may move home base to the heart of the small rural community, perhaps somewhere on or near State Road 674 and U.S. 301. He already is holding community classes at local businesses like Ana’s Restaurant, where people don’t have to travel far.

“The business transportation issue is major here,” adds Jackie Brown, President of the Wimauma CDC (Community Development Corp.). “People want to work. They can’t get there. If they have a little bit of money, they’re paying $20 to $30 to go to Sun City Center to get groceries.”

A 2014 Wimauma Voices Community Report shows transportation was one of five top challenges. The others are public safety and security, affordable housing and healthcare, education resources for children, youth and adults; and recreational resources for children, youth and families.   

With help from Allegany Franciscan Ministries and its Common Good Initiative, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and other concerned individuals, progress is being made. 

“Undoubtedly the voices of the people of Wimauma are being heard in many ways and many more places,” says Liz Gutierrez, who spearheaded the study funded by Allegany. “Today, the narrative is different, we are now talking about the opportunities in Wimauma to realize the historic promise of the community -- creating a community where all people have the opportunity to enjoy a high quality of life.”

Wimauma: a community in transition

For decades, Wimauma has been perceived as a farmworkers’ community. But, as new subdivisions locate in the area, perceptions – and indeed the very nature – of the community is changing.

A prime example of the new development is SouthShore Bay, which spans more than 650 acres in the vicinity of U.S. 301 and State Road 674. The development is bringing a 5+-acre lagoon with crystal-clear waters and sandy beaches to the community of homes priced at approximately $250,000 and up.

Greg Singleton, President of the Tampa-based Metro Development Group, says the company sees "great opportunity" in the area, where it already has located its gated Sereno community.

"We are excited that Southshore Bay will be one of the first communities in the U.S. to have a Crystal Lagoons amenity because we feel it is a game-changing component to master planned communities," he says.

Model homes are slated to open in November. The development is expected to open in September 2018, featuring UltraFi technology with the country’s fastest Internet and WiFi speeds, available in every home.

Mark Haggett, Principal of the Redland Christian Migrant Association’s Wimauma and Leadership academies, has seen the change among the students and families he serves. “We were established to serve the farmworker community,” he says. “Over the years, the percentage of migrant workers has declined.”

Farmworkers transitioned into blue-collar jobs, off the farm, that kept them there yearround. The number of migrant students has plummeted from about 75 percent in 2001 to about a third today.

Some workers are displaced when a farmer converts his labor force to the H2A guest worker program.

“It [Wimauma] is still a farmworker community,” says Haggett, who oversees 220 elementary and 105 middle school students at the charter schools. “Eventually is our school demographic going to change? Is the farmworker community going to disappear? I hope not.”

Javier Izaguirre, Operations Manager at Wimauma’s Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, has witnessed a change in the last 18 years at the ministry. He has watched the demographic change from husband, wife and children in the field to couples in the field to men in the field.

“I don’t know why,” he says. “It’s just changed.”

Andrea Najera, center coordinator for the RCMA’s after-school program, has witnessed a shift in the last 20 to 25 years in the community. “For awhile the people stopped traveling. They wanted their children to be here on time for school when it opened,” she says.

But as the area has developed, there’s been less farm work. “Because of the changes, there’s less field work, more houses. A lot of the families have started to travel again,” she says.

Developments were planned long ago

The area’s future was determined in the 1970s and 1980s, when the government approved housing along U.S. Highway 301, says Pedro Parra, Principal Planner for the Hillsborough County City County Planning Commission.

Landowners agreed to pay for roadway improvements.

“They were able to then come in the late ‘90s and to start getting permits on the development side to build these huge subdivisions that surround Wimauma,” he says.

“The rooftops drove the commercial development at the intersections,” he adds.

There are plans to widen U.S. 301 to six lanes for four miles between State Road 674 and Balm Road beginning in October. The $49 million project includes a new bridge over Big Bullfrog Creek, plus a multi-use path on the east and a sidewalk on the west. Completion is scheduled for summer of 2020.

The census picture is incomplete

Statistics paint a contrasting picture of Wimauma. It is a community of some 6,405, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. More than 73 percent are Hispanic.

Some 497 were employed in service occupations, followed by 442 in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations and 432 in construction and extraction occupations. Another 400 were working in management, business, science and arts occupations.

When you consider the migration of farmworkers into the community, the dynamic changes. Especially if that migrant community is as large as some believe it has been, possibly 10,000.

“Those folks would not be counted in any count of Census because they’re not permanent residents,” Gutierrez explains. “Whether they’re documented or not documented they would not be counted.”

The community has an identity crisis, Brown says, because the past, present and future co-exist. 

“Anytime you get that many personalities, then, yes, there’s going to be an identity crisis,” she says. “Respect the past, honor the past, educate about the past while moving to the future.”

Many years ago Wimauma was very segregated by race. “To a large degree, it is still segregated. However, I call them invisible walls of division,” she says of the community, which is approximately 6 percent black. “Within the last five years, I have seen where neighbor is reaching out to help neighbor, regardless of color. There’s still much work to be done in that area.”

The community has banded together with others concerned about Wimauma’s future. “We have to all work together. We are learning how to work together,” she adds. “If we don’t work together, there’s not going to be a future.”

The CDC, which is hard at work training and repurposing itself, plans to introduce the new residents to the old Wimauma. “We are going to introduce our new residents to Wimauma. They live in Wimauma but they don’t know anything about Wimauma,” she says.

Public safety and security

When Brown was growing up, she recalls, life was reminiscent of the fictitious Mayberry of the long-running 1960s Andy Griffith TV show, which featured Griffith as sheriff and Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife. It was a safe and friendly place.

But just 10 years ago it was home to “drug dens,” says Brown, now 55. Gangs proliferated. 

“We still have our issues here, but not like before,” she says. “Ten years ago the crime was so bad to where the hospital helicopters were taking turns landing at the [Bethune] Park and the Church of God Wimauma to take them to the hospital for stabbings and shootings.”

Gangs were a real problem. “Ten years ago the gangs were in control, wreaking havoc. It was a source of fear for people,” recalls Brown, a former migrant worker. “Now I’m seeing more and more people outside of their homes at night.”

She’s seen a pivotal shift away from teen crime. “We’ve also seen in the last 10 years more of a [Hillsborough County] Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) presence in Wimauma, which is critical considering we don’t have a substation,” she explains.

“What we have seen more of is crime involving home invasions, robbing,” she says.

Major Robert Bullara, who commands HCSO’s 4th District patrols, including Wimauma, says Wimauma has “greatly improved” in the last 10 to 12 years. 

Deputies are in and out of Bethune Park. “We have taken a vested interest in that community,” he says.

The goal is for the police to be viewed as “a friend and not a foe” and keep the youngsters out of jail in the future. “We’re investing early in high-risk children who come from lower economic areas,” he explains.

While the old substation has closed, it hasn’t affected patrols in Wimauma, he says.

Bullara credits the people of Wimauma for the reduction in violence. “They know people won’t put up with it over there,” he says. “Community involvement is the Number 1 issue that has improved quality of life issues in Wimauma,” he asserts.

The number of reported felonies for the Wimauma area remained constant from September 2015-August 2016 and September 2016-August 2017, at 40, he says. Personal robberies dropped from eight to four.

Figures are from an area between State Roads 674 and 672 and U.S. 301 and Balm Wimauma Road.

Affordable housing and healthcare

Some people in Wimauma are living in “dilapidated, substandard” mobile homes or houses, Brown says.

“Wimauma is screaming for better housing,” she says. “Wimauma CDC has no place to even have our meetings. There’s no infrastructure.”

Yet resolving the problem isn’t simple.

“There’s a lot of people that want affordable homes. The people that live there and want to continue to live there have issues qualifying for home ownership,” explains Earl Pfeiffer, Executive Director of Florida Home Partnership, “Those that qualify may not necessarily want to live there.”

The nonprofit organization, which completed the 140-home Hidden Creek subdivision in the community a few years ago, has been struggling with that dilemma for 20 years. “It’s very frustrating,” he admits.

FHP is positioned to partner on housing. It has funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the county to help homebuyers. “It’s going take more than a group like ours to change the situation in Wimauma,” he asserts.

What’s required are individuals who are committed to investing in a home there -- and who have the means to do it. “We’ll get involved if there is a significant interest,” he says.

On a case-by-case basis, FHP also can work with landowners who want to build on their property. When there are improvements, they are contagious.

La Esperanza mobile health clinic and Suncoast Community Health Centers have struggled to meet the communities’ needs. Healthcare is still an issue, as Pastor Carlos Irizarry, a nurse, can attest. 

Pastor Carlos is working to remedy that through a new behavioral health center aimed at providing local specialized healthcare services and improving treatment compliance. Low-cost services will be provided on a sliding scale based on income. 

An opening date for the center, planned at Wholesome Church on U.S. 301 north of State Road 674, hasn’t been set.

“Nobody is following up if that person is going to go to a specialty doctor,” Pastor Carlos says. “That’s what our clinic is all about.”

There may be a number of reasons why the patient doesn’t follow through on treatment, such as lack of instruction about how to inject insulin, for example.

“It could be that person is not too motivated about the changes,” he continues. “What they need is a coach, a health coach, which is what I am.”

Efforts have been hampered by some $10,000 damage to the church in Hurricane Irma, but he is recruiting specialty doctors, at least some who will be donating their time.

Early childhood learning 

Recognizing that early childhood is a critical time to a young child’s future, the community group succeeded in its effort to restore volunteer pre-kindergarten to the area in summer 2017. It’s a program that 78 percent of students statewide take advantage of, but which hasn’t been available in the public schools in Wimauma since 2009.

In the blended community, where Spanish is often the first language, young children may miss out on being read to, in English, and building their vocabulary.

That problem is being addressed by RCMA’s afterschool program for farmworker families at Wimauma Elementary. Located across the street, the program led by Najera, helps children with homework and offers reading and reading games.

With help from The Hope Fund led by Carla Miles, children are being taught lots of new things. Hope sends some 12 to 20 volunteers a day November through April when volunteers are in town. 

“The volunteers that we have are snowbirds,” Najera says. “That’s when the whole program starts.”

RCMA has had good results at its Wimauma Academy, which had 100 percent of its 36 third-graders pass the Florida Standards Assessment test. Only 12 schools statewide did so well in testing.

Another bright spot is childcare training offered in Wimauma through the nonprofit Enterprising Latinas, which Gutierrez founded. After completing the program, Brown opened a childcare facility in her home in late August called Little Angels Wimauma. More facilities are planned by others in the program.

Additionally, Wholesome Church plans to open a preschool expected to accommodate 50 to 75 students aged 2 to 4, with affordable pricing based on income. An opening date hasn’t been set.

The church has faced some challenges, including the threat it would be torn down to make the way for custom homes. The church was able to secure a loan and purchase the property it was renting on a month-to-month basis for five years.

Recreational facilities

Because Wimauma proper is outside the county’s urban service area, it has done without services other areas enjoy. One of them is recreational facilities. But the community has been making strides in their efforts to meet needs.

Discussions have been taking place with community leaders about the prospect of making the Masonic Park & Youth Camp more accessible to the public. Currently, the park is open to the public, space permitting, at the rate of $5 per day, with a potential for overnight stays.

The admission fee, and an insurance requirement for groups, might make the park inaccessible to part of the area’s population. 

The area had a median household income of $25,717 annually between 2011-2015.

The 204-acre youth camp on U.S. 301 south of State Road 674 offers a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities including hiking, swimming, canoeing, camping, picnic facilities and horseback riding. It also offers a summer camp open to the public. 

A fall dinner open to the public is planned October 21 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., which features an Oktoberfest meal, horseback riding, and a hayride for $15.

Owned by the 17 masonic lodges in Hillsborough County, it has been getting a $40,000 facelift, says David Rasmus, President of Masonic Youth Park Board.

Rasmus says the board is leaning toward making the facilities more accessible. At times they have been underutilized. But he adds, “This is privately owned. We have to have funds to maintain the place.”

Gains also have been made at the Boy’s and Girls Club at Bethune Park, where the sounds of bouncing basketballs can be heard late at night, especially on the weekends. “That didn’t happen 10 years ago. They were afraid,” says Brown, who lives nearby.

Chris Letsos, President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, says his organization has raised $1.5 million of the $2 million needed to rebuild the center. The club took over management of the facility and reopened it about two years ago. Work is expected to begin by summer 2018 and take six to nine months to complete.

“Residents fought long and hard for the opening of the Bethune Park, and now big plans are in place with the support of important funders like the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay to establish permanent high-quality educational and recreational programming for youth,” Gutierrez adds.

Transportation a lingering problem

Public transit riders in the area will lose Buses 47LX and 53LX October 8. A new route, 75LX, will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays from Kings Point in Sun City Center to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Brandon Mall. Ridership will be monitored.

“Our long-term plan would be to try to augment what we will be having down there with additional, on-demand services like our Hyperlink. In areas like that, that seems to be more effective,” says Steve Feigenbaum, Director of Service Development for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART).

Brown concedes the current service isn’t “conducive” to the people’s needs.

“I can’t tell you how many times people come to my house and ask me to take them somewhere. I drop more people off at Walmart,” she says. “Something is better than nothing.”

Though alternatives like Uber are an option, they may require a debit, credit, prepaid card or other electronic payment. And some don’t have these cards or don't want to use them. For low-income individuals, even a ride on Uber may seem out of reach unless they involve others who will book and pay for the ride.

Business owner Ana Majallon of Ana’s Restaurant in Wimauma has seen the effects of the problem. It’s harder to get help, she says.

In looking for transportation solutions, Gutierrez is hard at work on an alternative system for Wimauma called Arriba Transportation, which would offer rides for $1.75.

“Through this low-cost van service that will run throughout the community 7 days a week 12 hours a day, we hope to unlock the economic potential of all people in Wimauma,” Gutierrez says. “Again, we are seeking public and private funding to support the launch of this service.”

Her plan is to raise $250,000 and make service available in early 2018, after taking public input on six routes to operate within four quadrants throughout the area. The routes would offer service in and out of areas where a regular bus would never run. “What we’re trying to do in no way replaces what they’re trying to do,” she explains.

Gutierrez is anticipating minibuses running every 15 to 20 minutes.

The gains are many

She has witnessed many victories in Wimauma, notably Allegany’s decision to invest in the community through 2022. The investment has “amplified the voices of the community and has now provided tools and resources to actually act in big and concerted ways to advance the communities priorities,” Gutierrez says.

A direct beneficiary is Enterprising Latinas, which in turn has created opportunities for more women through its childcare training. “As a result we have in Wimauma for the first time ever, a community resource that is directed at helping women create economic opportunities for themselves by increasing their workforce skills, starting new businesses and in general building their individual and families’ assets,” she points out.

The needs of the community are being heard on the county level as well. “We are seeing and hearing about new investments in public infrastructure; street lighting, paving, sidewalks and more. Several major events have been organized in the community and those are happening more frequently,” she says.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who participated in an 83 Degrees Media-organized tour of Wimauma in June to view community assets and opportunities, is committed to helping with transportation in Wimauma and the county. He’s written a letter of support for Arriba Transportation and has talked with county staff about creating a grant program for low-income communities with transportation needs.

A Hillsborough County School Board member, Sally Harris, has donated a 15-passenger van for use in the Wimauma transportation system. Gutierrez says it will be painted and be used for preliminary promotions. Later it will be part of the fleet.

“Wimauma was the forgotten gem, the best kept secret of Hillsborough County,” Brown says. “Nobody came to Wimauma because of the perception that Wimauma was just full of these criminals, undocumented workers, nothing good.”

But things have changed. “We now have more people that are actually trying to help Wimauma to become the community that it can be -- and it should be,” she says.

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.

To subscribe to our free weekly e-magazine, follow this link
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Q&A: Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist
Q&A: Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist

Developers and new residents are moving into South Central Hillsborough County in a big way in recent years, causing natives and long-time residents anxiety over how to help shape a future that includes the people who’ve long called Wimauma home.

No longer forgotten, Wimauma voices are being heard as they call for economic growth and development that creates more high-paying jobs, education opportunities, transportation options, access to healthcare and childcare, and better safety and security.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who joined about 30 influential local, state and federal thought leaders on an 83 Degrees Media-organized tour  of  Wimauma in June, is among those that have taken an active interest in finding solutions for Wimauma. 

In this Q&A, he shares his impressions of the community – and the opportunities it presents.

83 Degrees: What are your overall perceptions about the people living in Wimauma and their desire for positive change? 

Victor Crist: I found my recent tour eye opening. What I witnessed was a beautiful area of Hillsborough County with tremendous opportunity. You’ve got people living in houses and you’ve got people living in trailers. It is an area of contrast and it is an area of needs.

83D: What indications are you seeing and hearing that community influencers outside of Wimauma are becoming more aware of the economic opportunities in Wimauma, particularly when it comes to job creation?

VC: There seems to be a higher level of interest from the local media along with the private and nonprofit sectors lately in wanting to develop in that area.   

83D:What do you see as Wimauma’s top three strengths? 

VC: It currently is an affordable region of Hillsborough County that could attract residents looking for affordable living. There is a lot of undeveloped land centrally located between Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties that could be inviting for potential employers looking for a site to develop their business. As the housing market grows in that area, and residents move into the area, there will be more disposable income and more small businesses to cater to them. In addition, there seems to be the potential for cultivating a viable workforce that already resides there.  

83D: The 2014 Wimauma Voices Community Report reveals areas of concern for the people of Wimauma. What is needed now from community thought leaders and policy makers outside of Wimauma to help shape its future?

VC:  The existing needs study should be expanded into a comprehensive needs assessment developed in cooperation and with input from all of the potential major stakeholders [such as traffic engineers, the school district, law enforcement, firefighters. the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. Then that should be formatted into an action plan that prioritizes the needs, establishes a pricetag for each of the needs, identifies potential resources to address those needs (whether it be sweat equity, private money or public dollars) and a timeline.

Part of that assessment and plan should include, but not be limited to, transportation, childcare, workforce development, affordable housing, economic/job development, infrastructure, healthcare and public safety. 

It also would show what the overall benefit would be to the area and the county as a whole.

I recommend this is the way to go to build support in revitalizing and improving the area. Communities that have done these have been much more successful than those who haven’t. I wouldn’t hesitate to support the county working with the community to identify the right consultants and assist in formulating a task force to look at it -- and maybe I would even step up to the table to help support it.

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.

To subscribe to our free weekly e-magazine, follow this link.