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Ruskin the City Gives Way to Downtown Renewal
By Melody Jameson
Aug 9, 2007, 22:23

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RUSKIN - Incorporation of this historic community as a city has taken a backseat as its downtown redevelopment once again is in the forefront.

Unable to use a second feasibility study to support  another proposal for legislative approval of a community-wide election on the incorporation question, a handful of community leaders now are discussing with county staff a novel approach to business district revitalization that could become a prototype for other communities.

Three members of an informal group supporting incorporation as a means of assuring local community control of its destiny met with several county managers last week for initial discussions, said Joe Incorvia, the county’s community planning manager.

The conversation still is in the very early stages, Incorvia cautioned, but the general direction is creation of a series of workshops aimed at bringing together people with high degrees of the kinds of expertise needed to get a redevelopment effort off the ground.  These might include  university level specialists in business district revitalization  or redevelopment-savvy marketers who talk the language of the major development companies or national-league experts knowledgeable in obtaining grants, he indicated.

Such an endeavor, possibly assisted by a $20,000 grant that Florida’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) had offered in connection with another concept, also could become the model for similar redevelopment efforts undertaken by other small communities, the planning manager added.   

No timeline or target dates for turning the organizational discussion into definite plans yet exists, Incorvia said.  However, he added, this week he is developing a report for the county’s board of commissioners August 15 meeting.   The next step in the “brainstorming” approach on behalf of Ruskin could come out of that meeting, he indicated.     

After a first attempt at converting the community to the county’s fourth municipality failed two years ago, local pro-incorporation forces resolved to try again in 2008.  The first try for an election on the city-making issue, built on a feasibility study prepared by a Cape Coral consultant, was turned aside by the 2006 session of the state legislature when study figures didn’t stand up under state scrutiny.   

But Brandon-based former Senator Tom Lee, then president of the Florida Senate, helped push through a $50,000 appropriation for a second examination of the proposed city’s fiscal future.  This study, though, was not commissioned by DCA from an Orlando consultant until a mere few weeks before it was needed for the document package required by the local legislative delegation.  Without the documents, a formal bill proposing a pro-or-con-incorporation election could not be prepared for the next regular legislative session.  

In addition, the second study contained more financial discrepancies, Wade Clark, another incorporation supporter, said this week.   It was reviewed by Dr. James Nicholas, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, Clark added, who pinpointed several problems within it.  

Nicholas, specializing in planning and related law, told The Observer he looked at the same data used by the Orlando consultant but reached an entirely different conclusion.  A City of Ruskin, he said, was and is financially feasible.

But, without a reliable study and with time escaping, Clark said the incorporation effort now “is on hold.”

Subsequently, DCA suggested to the Ruskin contingent that they might apply for and use a $20,000 grant to stage a high level, multi-day conference on community redevelopment, explained Bruce Marsh, another member of the incorporation support group.

However, when the concept was proposed on the county level it was not met with much enthusiasm, Marsh added.  Instead, county staffers proposed the workshop concept, along with applying for the DCA grant offered previously, and this approach now is underway.  

Whatever approach is taken, Marsh said, it remains important to try to preserve the best of Ruskin. “It is a unique and rare place,” he added, “with an identity, a spectacular waterfront, strategically located and ideal as a great destination point. It is shameful to carpet it with cookie cutter residential development.”

The Ruskin residents taking part in last week’s discussion were Sandy Council, Marsh and Ron Wolfe, all active in the incorporation committee which grew out of the Ruskin Community Development Foundation that, in turn, spearheaded development of the Ruskin Community Plan. Ruskin’s formal community plan now is an official part of the Hillsborough Comprehensive Plan.     

County representatives joining in the early discussions included Pat Bean, county administrator, Peter Aluotto, director of the Planning and Growth Management Department, John Healey, a planner who worked with the Ruskin contingent in creating its plan, and Incorvia.

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