Uptown District leaders focus on income inequalities in North Tampa

As the Uptown District of North Tampa sees unprecedented redevelopment, the neighborhoods adjacent to the University of South Florida (USF), Busch Gardens, and University Mall have seen promising moves toward renewed growth in the past few years. So, those who are helping influence the change want to make sure residents living in the community remain stakeholders in the area’s transformation and benefit economically from it.
RD Management, which bought University Mall in 2014, has begun massive redevelopments at the landmark retail hub and recently started construction on its multimillion-dollar transformation of the property into the live-work-play space called RITHM (Research, Innovation, Technology, Humanity, and Medicine) at Uptown.

Nearby, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center is in the beginning stages of vertical construction at a new campus on Malcolm McKinley Boulevard near Busch Gardens. 

Both AdventHealth and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital are building major new additions to their campuses near the intersection of East Fletcher Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

And Yuengling Brewing Company of Tampa is in the early stages of building a massive new entertainment project at its sprawling campus on North 30th Street. 

Other projects are also in the works along the bustling Fowler Avenue corridor. 

While these ongoing developments promise to bring incredible success for their owners and could annually usher in tens of millions of dollars in revenue to the Uptown District over the next years, who else will benefit? Those who work alongside the folks at Tampa’s Innovation Partnership, formerly known as the Tampa Innovation Alliance, want to ensure that the residents of the Uptown community enjoy their share of the economic pie, too.
The neighborhoods in the 19-square-mile Uptown District, bounded to the north by Bearss Avenue, to the south by Busch Boulevard, and east and west by Interstates 75 and 275, are predominantly inhabited by USF students, working-class families, and individuals relying on public housing assistance. They represent a largely lower-income and traditionally underrepresented segment of Tampa’s populace and have been often overlooked by decision-makers who dole out construction contracts, jobs, and other socio-economic opportunities.

It was at the site of the former University Mall on Fowler Avenue where riots broke out in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police earlier this summer and otherwise largely peaceful protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
But RD Management Chief Development Strategist Chris Bowens says he is working hard to change the North Tampa area's economic circumstances.

“The potential for new jobs with a bright future in Uptown is greater than any other neighborhood in Tampa Bay,” he says. “The fact that our community-at-large has been so painfully slow to grasp that concept is costing all of us every day we delay in fully powering up the Uptown economic engine.” 

Innovation drives growth
Bowen says innovation is the key to making Uptown not only a thriving development zone but also one that taps into the diverse strengths and skillsets of local residents. After all, one in six jobs in that community and one in three businesses there are in the high-tech sectors.

“Much of our work to plan for and nurture the development of Tampa’s Uptown District into a great, urban-influenced innovation community is focused on how best to fully activate the immense resources in Uptown related to the academic, research, medical, and technology sectors in such a way that delivers beneficial solutions and new pathways to prosperity to the residents of our local neighborhoods.”
Some of these forward-thinking pipelines for economic stimulus in the Uptown District will be showcased in the upcoming 6th Annual Innovation Gathering, to be held virtually on October 29, 2020.

“There is more to announce and introduce at this year‘s event than at any other time in recent history,'' Bowen continues. "Our !p audience will receive updates on over a billion dollars in new projects under construction within 12 or so blocks from one another; the status of new, extremely promising start-ups, like the USF Institute of Applied Engineering; the status of the formation of the Uptown Innovation District authority; and a little glimpse of what the future holds for the Innovation Partnership organization.”
Among the updates will be news about businesses like home-grown technology mentoring and training companies, such as Net Synergy Virtual Solutions, or NETSVS.

“RD Management has devoted significant resources and adapted the [University] Mall facility to act more like a community business incubator in order to develop new concepts that deliver to local residents meaningful career and employment opportunities in a matter of months, not years,'' Bowen says. "There are many additional, innovative programs like NETSVS, focusing on other technology jobs such as in the medical sector, which we are working to locate within Uptown.”

Such jobs recruit everyone from high school students to senior citizens into roles with starting salaries of around $45,000, plus benefits. 

Economic security virtually guaranteed
Companies like NETSVS represent exactly the type of homespun independent businesses Bowen and other community leaders hope to see more of. It’s even better when the individuals who operate these firms know the challenges and opportunities distinct to the Uptown District.

“I’m no stranger to the area -- I lived in the Uptown area during my time in college,” says NETSVS Chief Technology Officer Chris Morancie. “There’s so much wanted potential here,” he says about the Uptown community.
Morancie’s goal is to use his technology services company as a conduit between skilled local residents and the many new employment opportunities opening up in the Uptown tech sector. He plans to do this by collaborating with other entrepreneurs in the area to offer paid internships that teach a variety of skills related to the technology fields.

“There are opportunities in tech for everyone. It's not just scientists. ... Tech companies need public relations experts, accountants, marketing strategists, and folks in many other skill areas.”
Similar initiatives led by Morancie and NETSVS have helped train 20 people, eight of whom work full-time for the company. He sees individual, existing economic advantage -- or lack thereof -- as one of the biggest hurdles between low-income high school and college students and the lucrative internships available.

“Not everybody walks the same path. A lot of times we ask people to do the same things that those who already have an advantage do; for example, someone going to college with family assistance or on funds from an inheritance can afford to do a semester of unpaid internships; someone who is barely making ends meet might feel it's more imperative to take that same time away from school working to earn money, and often the jobs they take are minimum-wage positions in food or retail.”

So, by creating paid internships and apprenticeships, Morancie believes he can lure more local low-income students toward the open doors in the growing technology sector in Uptown.

“The next step is going back to the innovative companies and get them to work with these companies in the area to add programs and then build a continued experience for them.”

To join Morancie’s program, the student must live in Hillsborough County, be at least 18 years old, and be a U.S. citizen. It is presently open to students enrolled at USF and Hillsborough Community College, and while all qualified students are encouraged to apply, preference is given to those who live in the Uptown District.  

“This is a rare opportunity,” Morancie adds. “None of this happens without Chris [Bowen] and the folks at the Innovation Partnership. They have the vision and are helping to bridge the gaps."

Success comes in private-public partnerships 

Ask Tampa City Councilperson Luis Viera how things get done, and he’ll tell you it’s when people work together.

“There are many initiatives to reduce poverty in Uptown and many private-enterprise and public grants coming in,” he explains. “And when the private sector and government work together, great things happen.” 

Viera’s socioeconomically diverse District 7, running from the close-in suburban community of Forest Hills to the northern outer fringes of the city in leafy New Tampa, includes the southern half of the Uptown District. He understands not only the longtime challenges encountered in the USF neighborhoods but also the rich promise that the community offers. Moreover, he knows the people who live there.

“There’s so much untapped potential in the Uptown area,” he says. “Our goal isn't to push people out of the Uptown area. They are human capital, and they will be stakeholders in the change happening throughout the community.” 

Enabling Uptown residents to be active agents of the change happening in their community means there are potentially many thousands of people who can mobilize the vision that local leaders have long had for the Uptown region. But that also presents a kaleidoscopic set of considerations that need to be addressed in making sure these changes impact everyone in the best possible way.

“There are so many different pieces of the puzzle and, in Uptown, we need to create more affordable housing, provide better code enforcement, and make sure we are creating conditions where nobody is getting left behind." 

Another piece of the puzzle? Creating apprenticeship opportunities for those living in the area to gain skills and, ultimately, help set them on the road to a brighter future.

"We want to create a way for more people to push toward middle-income financial security. We want to create state-certified apprenticeships and see that a new requirement is created whereby companies considered for work must hire a certain percentage of apprentices.”

He stresses that such an initiative requires the continued support of local leaders and residents working together and making their voices heard so that corporate executives see the many mutual benefits that can be had through offering such training programs. 

About Innovation Gathering 2020
  • When: Thursday, Oct. 29, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Online -- Virtual 
  • Cost: $10-$25 (Proceeds benefit the Community Enrichment Lab
  • Featuring: Economist Richard Florida, author of The New Urban Crisis, Who's Your City, and The Rise of the Creative Class
  • Link to sign up

More information about Tampa's innovation district and previous stories about the Uptown District in Tampa.
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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.