Tampa Innovation Zone

Anyone exiting I-275 on their way to the University of South Florida or Busch Gardens knows how shoddy the area looks from the street. Fast-food joints, motels, bars, vacant lots and empty buildings line the roadways, which border some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods.

Yet the area is home to a number of high-profile institutions — USF, Busch Gardens, Moffitt Cancer Center and Florida Hospital — that contribute millions to the local economy, employ thousands of workers and in some instances provide some of the area’s highest wages.

Turning around the fortunes of the neglected areas around those institutions is now in the hands of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who is leading a renewed effort by the nonprofit Tampa Innovation Alliance to forge a viable plan.

The complexity of the task has stalled past efforts. Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist has been a champion of reviving the area for decades, and when in the Legislature was successful in winning key public investments, including the University Area Community Complex.

But transforming a neighborhood as challenged as this one is a full-time job, one that requires bringing together public and private resources and a favorable economic climate. Sharpe’s job is to build on Crist’s work and finally effect the community’s revival.

He sees the potential for a live-work-play district befitting of the caliber of institutions that call the area home. A key partner will be the new owners of the University Mall, where a thoughtful redevelopment of that property could deliver momentum. Sharpe says the new mall owners support the nonprofit alliance and promise to rebuild with the community’s vision in mind. A mix of residential units and commercial businesses is being contemplated.

In the meantime, Sharpe will work with private companies and with the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County to remove the blight that is often the first impression Tampa’s visitors have when traveling to Busch Gardens or USF. Much has been rightly made of the $1 billion being spent in downtown Tampa to build a livable community in the Channel District, just 10 miles south of the area Sharpe is working to bring to life. That effort is backed by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik with financial support from Bill Gates. The city has agreed to spend millions on infrastructure in support of the effort.

Sharpe can’t expect to draw the deep pockets that are fueling the Channel District development. But he has the backing of premier institutions in the county, and the benefit of relationships built during two terms on the County Commission.

This effort, though not yet fully defined and not as celebrated as the Vinik plan, is still critically important to Tampa’s future. The prospect of drawing even more respected institutions would be enhanced by a district that is functional and aesthetically pleasing.

The area’s business leaders and government officials should offer their support.

Read more at TBO.com