How to build happier, improved communities for all

Victor Crist, a former Florida State Senator and Hillsborough County Commissioner, was the Founder of the University Area Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit whose mission is the redevelopment and sustainability of the at-risk areas surrounding the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. 83 Degrees asked Crist to describe how the UACDC in North Tampa was created and what makes it a success and duplicable for other neighborhoods. Below is his assessment.

Victor Crist, former state senatorAfter 38 years of community improvement work throughout the neighborhoods surrounding the USF Tampa campus, we cultivated an effective recipe for sustainable positive change. We learned that effective community development is a lot like cooking. With the exact amount of the right ingredients, lots of shared love, relentless drive, and sprinkled with patience, a wonderful outcome will emerge. The following is a brief summary of what has worked for us.

Identify clearly your target area. Utilize all the information you can gather to establish visible boundaries. Look at the U.S. Census blocks, what part is in the city, unincorporated county, School District, and law enforcement district. Along with your neighborhoods-of-concern, be sure to include those who are directly adjacent that could benefit from your improvements made.

Establish a lead organization, a 501c3 non-profit, that is inclusive of all of those who could be directly impacted by your community improvement. You should include representatives from other nonprofits, government agencies, elected officials, movers and shakers, potential donors, and a broad representation of your residents. Set up a steering committee and elect your officers. Divide up your steering committee into issues specific councils. These Councils should be expanded to include others that may not be on your steering committee. Each council should be challenged to focus on specific issues within your target area. For example, Public Safety, Children and Families, Infrastructure, Affordable Housing, Commerce, along with anything else relevant. They should be charged with delivering a work product to the entire steering committee to discuss and endorse.

These councils should first provide a thorough "Needs Assessment" followed by a realistic "Resource Assessment.” Once that work has been completed and finalized by the steering committee, then your "Action Plan" should be developed for each council to follow through over time.

As progress is made, needs will change, so update your assessments every 5 years. After your organization approves your Assessments and Action Plan, it should also be brought before local governments for review and their blessing as well. Acquiring a vote of confidence from your Board of County Commissioners, City Council, and School Board will give your initiative the credibility it will need to acquire help and resources along the way.

In developing your Assessments and Action Plan, it is critically important to be all-inclusive. You must make sure that you have really dug into the community and have included as many of the different stakeholders as possible. This will help to minimize, if not eliminate disagreement on what the priorities are, once you start moving forward. (I have seen too many Community Action Plans done with too small of a group of stakeholders, thus failing to ensure broad representation and buy-in. Their efforts eventually slow down or fall apart, because of internal and external bickering.)

Know your target area, study it well. Document and maintain accurate records of information that you discover from credible sources. Look at the U.S. census study for your census blocks. Identify crime rates, unemployment, poverty, blight, and the number of seniors, children, and families on public assistance. What are the primary languages spoken, and what are the different cultures? Where do the residents’ shop, where do they go for employment? What transportation opportunities exist? Where are the closest daycares, parks, recreation facilities, health, and human services among others? What government agencies or other nonprofits may be operating in the area who could serve as a partner.

A good place to start is with your local neighborhood law enforcement agency. They are usually eager to meet with and develop relationships with residents and business owners in at-risk communities. A good solid working relationship with neighborhood law enforcement, who you get to know, will go a long way in helping to reduce crime and keep any potential civil unrest peaceful and constructive. Identify and enlist area stakeholders with deep pockets that could be potential sponsors of your projects and/or activities. They could be business owners, corporate executives, landlords, or local residents with disposable income.

Enlist your local elected officials. They can help open doors for you to make valuable connections. They can also help in acquiring public resources for your needs and projects. It wouldn't be unusual for a local government to assign a representative to help your organization build capacity. Especially if the need is clearly articulated and they can see a long-term cost savings.

Generally, the government likes to forge public-private partnerships to leverage outside resources to lower costs to taxpayers. What will help in getting their continued attention and interest, would be providing public recognition for their efforts.
Go after grants. You could find that local government, law enforcement agencies, and other nonprofits may be willing to partner with you. They generally have greater capacity and knowledge to do most of the writing of the grant proposal but need a partner like you for it to be stronger.

Now, that you've collected all the information and have engaged all the potential stakeholders, it is time to formulate your "Action Plan." It should include all the tools that you will need for your sustainable community improvements. It could include a new school in your neighborhood to focus on the needs of the children. It could be a new park and recreation facility, to help engage youth and families in constructive after school activities. It could include increased neighborhood public safety, by establishing a new fire rescue station or law enforcement substation. It could include infrastructure improvements like sidewalks, streetlights, stormwater drainage, water and sewer hookups, along with expanding daycare and quality affordable housing. It could also include regular neighborhood cleanups, family-friendly events, or open forums for public dialog on hot issues of concern. Each community is unique, and their unique needs will dictate what is in their Action Plan. There is no one size fits all here.

Costs should be determined, budgets should be calculated, and a timeline established, clearly identifying what comes first and so on. Keep it going, build on your steady momentum.

As you complete each step of the Action Plan, check it off, and celebrate communitywide. Everyone needs to see, enjoy, and appreciate the progress made. Share the credit and enjoy the taste of your success. You don't have to change completely overnight to have a happier community. People need to feel respected and to see progress being made on a reasonable timeline.

Before you know it, with the right ingredients and some extended loving care, you will have a happier and improved community to enjoy.

Victor Crist is a USF graduate who served eight years in the Florida House of Representatives, 10 years in the Florida Senate, and eight years as a Hillsborough County Commissioner. He is currently serving his 30th year as President of the USF Area Community Civic Association and is the Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the University Area Community Development Corporation. He has been President of Metropolitan Communications, Inc. An advertising marketing and advocacy firm since 1983.

The University Area Community Development Corporation, Inc. (University Area CDC) is a 501c3 public/private partnership whose mission is children and family development, crime prevention, and commerce growth. Its primary focus is the redevelopment and sustainability of the at-risk areas surrounding the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. For over 20 years, University Area CDC has championed positive change in the economic, educational and social levels of the community through youth programs, adult education, affordable housing, workforce, and resource assistance, and community engagement.
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