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Over Coffee

‘Mayor’s’ Policy Is Children First
Sep 18, 2008 - 9:50:19 AM

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When John Vogel ran for honorary mayor of Gibsonton the charity he collected for was the Brandon Crisis Pregnancy Center.

But his heart has always gone out to children, and he’s on a mission to improve their lives.

Sitting with him and his wife, Barbara, in his longtime family home facing what was obviously a handmade stone fireplace surrounded by family, friends and a baby crawling on the floor, I was immediately struck by the sincerity of his words. John a good example of “practicing what you preach.”

For years, as an active member of Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton Area Inc., and simply as a private citizen, John has been very vocal about things county officials have promised but not done. He has also followed the area’s planning and zoning, and knows what it is possible to accomplish in Gibsonton and many other areas of South County.

He pulled out a full-color brochure printed during the Community Planning process.
“None of these things were ever finished,” John said. “And now they’ve been talking about cutting children’s programs (at parks and recreation departments) and school buses. The people who live here watch out for each other. Our children come first. If we had been left alone to do things we knew we needed we would have accomplished them ourselves.”

He went through the promises on the brochure item by item. “If we had spent the money put into the planning process and printing this thing we would have had the money for the gymnasium (at Gardenville Recreation Center on Symmes Road) that we need.”

But John didn’t invite me into his home just to tell me what he thinks is wrong. He also has made a very in-depth study of government-owned lands in his area and has an idea how to make them pay for everything Gibsonton needs.   
The “old-timer” to the area is also a man of vision.

Having followed the sale of lands by area farmers who were hard-pressed and about to lose their farms following the initiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, John has listed 1,200 nearby acres that are owned by county, state and federal agencies. “These are all between Big Bend Road and the Alafia River, and Interstate 75 to Tampa Bay,” he explained. “About 10 years ago the county bought Davis Landfill and promised us a park there. It’s about 500-feet off of U.S. 41, easy walking or driving for a park, and right on the Bay. The north side of the land has Bullfrog Creek access and the south side is Dug Creek and it runs all the way to the Kitchen (an area of waterway named ‘Kitchen’ years ago because of its abundance of fish) right on a canal, behind Andy’s Fiberglass (Boat Repair Inc. on U.S. 41).”

This is not (what the county calls) “prestigious lands,” he elaborated. “It’s a landfill. Yet there’s access to the water there for small boats, kayaks and Jon boats that now have to go to Apollo Beach or Ruskin to put in.”

He explained that small boats cannot launch at Williams Park (on the north side of the U.S. 41 Alafia Bridge) because that waterway leads out a shipping channel and goes too far out for the smaller boats to go safely.

The people of Gibsonton could use this area (Davis) as our “Simmons Park,” he added. “It would be perfect for our use.” Gibsonton fishermen could have a key like they have at Simmons Park, and on weekends it could be open to everyone.”
But John’s idea isn’t just a pipe dream. He says he has figured out how to pay for the changes- including the Gardenville gym.

“County Parks (and Recreation Department) have bought Schultz Park at Port Redwing. That’s a dredge park. It was dredged for shipping and since Port Manatee is full and looking to expand- they can’t do any more where they are- Port Redwing is a perfect place to encourage deep-channel shipping. It’s even a good staging area for oil rigs if drilling is ever permitted offshore and we know where that’s headed,” he said. “These channels were dug deep for just these purposes, yet SWFTMUD says it bought the land to restore to its native state. That doesn’t make sense now because the water there is very  unsafe for families. It is a channel. Why not use it as a channel and make us money?”

Another idea of John’s is to offer Boys & Girls Clubs of America the chance to build on the county land that used to be Ekker Fish Farms, which he says is standing vacant gathering (nonnative) Brazilian peppers and mosquitoes.

“The shipping channel could bring in more than enough money for the clubs and the Gardenville gymnasium and keep money coming into the area for years after that,” John said seriously. “Years ago, when they started declaring this a no-impact fee zone, they planned all these lower income housing projects – you can see them all over  – and they brought in a lot of new children. But now the county wants to stop helping those children. What they tried to do with the buses and parks makes me sick.”

John fears if things don’t change soon, the school board will try and enforce a shortage of buses again to save money. “Why does the government always go after those who can’t help themselves?” he asked. “Parents can’t go to meetings to defend themselves. They have to give their thoughts and ideas to someone like me (he is 62 and his children are all grown) to fight for them because they’re home- well, doing their jobs, working and taking care of their families. Even when they hold night meetings, supposedly so families can attend, they come home exhausted and would have to pay baby-sitters to get there.”

Then he reminded me about the recent meeting at Gardenville rec center where more than 50 families made a special effort to attend. Many even brought their children because they didn’t want to miss it and had nowhere to leave them.
Yet the person they went there to see – Mark Thornton- head of the parks and recreation department- didn’t show up. He sent a proxy, promised another appearance, but never has held a face-to-face meeting with parents.

“This is what happens in South County,” John said. “I have to credit Susan Valdez from the school board, some of the County Commissioners and the people from Lutz who have also been fighting for buses who took the time to come here and support us. But the government officials never do what they plan. Why spend all that money for studies, brochures and meetings and then have it end up like this?”
John offered me coffee, since this is the Over Coffee column. But it was late in the day and I refused. The main point of the column, I reminded him, is to give local residents a chance to tell others what is on their mind.

And John certainly had enough ideas on his. Now, if only someone in county government will listen and openly discuss the possibility of changing its plans.
So what if an area that was bought for a park ends up not being a park because it is unsafe? Better to stop throwing money at a project than throw away good money after bad.

Starting over doesn’t have to mean new rounds of planning procedures – with all the related expenditures–  taking everything back to Square One. Right now, it seems to me a simple exchange of ideas is in order.

Perhaps, like the determined Gibsonton parents who won back their buses, like-minded South County citizens can offer their help to John – as honorary mayor he may be reached through Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton Area Inc., or his number may be found in the telephone book. Maybe, just maybe, good will continue to come out of local residents’ determination. But they can’t give up.    

*Perhaps you have something you’d like to share. Or maybe you’d rather tell the community about your favorite charity or cause: or sound off about something you think needs change. That’s what “Over Coffee” is about. It really doesn’t matter whether we actually drink any coffee or not (although I probably will). It’s what you have to say that’s important. E-mail me any time and suggest a meeting place. No matter what’s going on, I’m usually available to share just one more cup.

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