By Mike Salinero | Tribune Staff Mike Salinero on Google+
Published: July 29, 2015   |   Updated: July 30, 2015 at 07:02 AM


After years of talk, Hillsborough County leaders say they’re ready to start creating an “Innovation District” in the downtrodden but economically promising area around the University of South Florida.

On Wednesday, county commissioners were given a broad outline of how the county will join with the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace and the non-profit Innovation Alliance to start planning for the area’ rebirth.

Details of how such a plan would work were sketchy, but in the short-term they include creating a management structure to guide planning and eventual development. County Administrator Mike Merrill has included $2 million in the county’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget for preliminary steps, including a master plan for the area due at the end of next year.

As with other big-picture projects, the Innovation District will live or die depending on the degree of cooperation between all the parties interested in the area. Ron Barton, assistant county administrator for prosperity, said a key step will cooperation between the county, the two cities and the Innovation Alliance.

The Alliance, which is led by former county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, includes major players in the university area such as USF, Busch Gardens and RD Management, the company that purchased University Mall in December.

“This is not a county effort, this is a team effort,” Barton said. “We need all the parties in that area to act differently.”

The district’s 12,000-plus acres is split between Tampa, Temple Terrace and unincorporated Hillsborough County. Sharpe said forcing businesses to deal with two or more government bureaucracies will stifle development. Part of the Innovation Alliance’s job under the upcoming management structure will be to cut through red tape and fast-track development.

“We’re now communicating to the development community that … we’re going to make sure when you begin to make that investment, you’re not going to have to jump through all these bureaucratic hurdles and go from department to department,” Sharpe said. “That’s huge. That’s as important as saying we’re going to put money into it.”

Temple Terrace Mayor Frank Chillura, like other proponents of the Innovation District, said the area has great potential with assets like USF, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, Busch Gardens, Florida Hospital and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

“There are so many economic engines in there that are not running at full capacity,” Chillura said. “If they were all united with one voice, their capacity would be so much greater.”

Barton said the ultimate goal of the district will be to leverage those existing assets and create an environment that will draw not only large businesses but entrepreneurs who want to be in an innovation community. The county and the cities can lay the groundwork with better streets, sidewalks sewers and drainage, but the district also has to be about attracting private investment.

“It’s as much an economic development strategy as it is a land plan,” he said.

The biggest challenge will be the area’s poverty and blighted neighborhoods.

Commissioner Victor Crist, who has worked on social problems in the University Area for three decades, said poverty and social welfare programs have to be a priority as the county and cities work to stoke the area’s economic engine.

“You have to work with families to help them overcome circumstances they have little control over; helping people turn their lives around, which is critically important here,” said Crist, citing child care and job training as critical needs.

Still, Wednesday’s presentation was a long-awaited treat for Crist, who attended USF and founded the non-profit University Area Community Development Corp.

“Now we’re going to go in there and make some necessary changes that will do more than attract apartments and new development. We’ll actually work to grow businesses and jobs, meaningful jobs.”

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