The Western Front

Is it time for West Tampa?

Page 4 of 5

The Armory project, however, has been delayed for almost a year and a half due to protracted negotiations between the city and the National Guard, which uses the facility.

Economic development is another challenge. The area generates few jobs, and as a result, its poverty rate (24 percent) is higher than the citywide average and its median income ($30,000) is lower. The neighborhood has a nonprofit agency that aims to protect the neighborhood while improving its economy. "We want to give residents the opportunity to start their own businesses," said Michael Randolph, executive director of the West Tampa Community Development Corp., criticized by some as just another layer of bureaucracy but still recognized by most as the galvanizing force for change over the past five years.

Starting a business in West Tampa isn't easy. There is a maze of organizations and groups involved in the planning and approval process (the CDC, the overlay committee, city zoning officials, to name a few). The rules are complex and myriad. But parking is the biggest problem; design guidelines almost mandate that you buy a second lot next door to your business to accommodate cars, adding to a new business' startup costs.

Then there is the lack of available retail properties; according to West Tampa Chamber of Commerce President Rick Caldevilla, there are no such properties for sale along the popular Howard and Armenia avenues.

South of the interstate, new businesses are moving in rapidly. Attorney Dario Diaz's new building is among the more prominent of a handful of new law offices. Strictly Entertainment talent agents moved to Armenia in the past few years. The Weekly Planet relocated its offices from Ybor City to Lemon Street, just a block from the Armory. Its owners certainly have a vested interest in the overall growth of West Tampa.

North of the interstate, starting a business remains tougher. Those who do find land and enough parking end up caught in lots of red tape.

Just ask Barbara Baker.

Baker, who converted an old cigar factory into office space with her own money 18 years ago, is betting $1 million that she can turn Howard Avenue's 100-year-old Gold Nugget building — most recently a bar, drug-dealing destination and brothel — into an old-fashioned general store, Victorian parlor and loft offices.

On a sunny and cool Wednesday morning, she meets with her construction crew, who have been on the job for a year and who have become like family to her. She chose to redevelop the 1907 boarding house up to historic standards, even though West Tampa is not covered by preservation laws. (It is a National Historic District, which provides tax breaks but not preservation protection, see sidebar story on the dispute over protecting cigar factories.) As a result, she's spending $250,000 more than if she had not made it historically accurate, and she's opening this fall more than a year after she'd planned to.

"I believe in West Tampa," Baker said. "This corridor here could very quickly come back to life."

Standing outside her new building, with her life savings on the line, Baker riffs on the spot's old name, Gold Nugget, and said, "Out of the dust comes gold."

Perhaps because of the area's history of self-reliance, much of the progress in West Tampa is driven by the residents themselves. Galvanized by solid planning and economic research done by the Planning Commission and the zeal of project director Jim Hosler, the West Tampa "volunteers" are an informal group of advocates who meet in four different committees to resolve problems. The land use committee is working to close a loophole in the overlay design standards that has allowed some non-preservation-minded homebuilders to put suburban-style garages in the front of homes instead of off the alley in the rear. The volunteers' transit committee has come up with a design for counter-circulating bus routes that would put transit within five blocks of every home in West Tampa and that has attracted the attention of HARTline. Others worry about the impact of having so many storefront churches, which makes it impossible to open restaurants nearby that want to serve wine, beer and liquor because of zoning that prohibits such sales near religious buildings.

The flexibility and informality of the committees makes sense because many of West Tampa's problems are inter-related. Many lower-income homebuyers need the city's help to qualify for $50,000 in down payment assistance. But if they are making car payments, they often exceed debt ratios for that program. If they can ride the bus and get rid of their car, they can buy a home. And with fewer cars in the neighborhood, more homes and businesses can be built.

West Tampa is benefiting from lessons that other historic neighborhoods learned in redeveloping before them.

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