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Citizens weigh in on vacancy problem

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image PENNY FLETCHER PHOTO

On Jan. 1 there were 949 vacancies (in the county) due to foreclosures and now that figure is down to 866.

By PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY — Reed McBride takes what he reads to heart. After reading the story “Vacancies cost county more than tax revenue” in The Observer News Feb. 3 he and his employees at Reed’s Maintenance & Welding put their heads together to think of a solution because they know vacant houses attract all sorts of crime.

Reed works with young people having trouble at home or school, and with some who are in detention facilities. He envisions some type of work program that will teach at-risk youngsters a trade so they can earn a decent living while fixing up vacancies that are being destroyed and causing problems for neighbors.

Reed first visited Bill Langford, head of a five-person task force that works strictly on the growing vacancy problem. A special group working within the county’s code enforcement division, Bill said he has never seen so many vacancies at one time and his group is always ready to hear new ideas.

Reed, who had gone to the University of South Florida and served at MacDill Air Force Base and knew he liked Hillsborough County, had run a welding business in Miami many years. He moved to Sun City Center in 2002 to care for his parents and started another welding and maintenance service here.

When he was no longer a caregiver, he stayed.

The Pinellas County School District asked him to help students because there are so many teens who are not headed for college that have no way to earn a good wage, while nationally there is currently a shortage of about 200,000 certified welders.

Reed put two and two together and came up with a plan.

“There are 32 trades offered in this area,” he said. “Most training lasts for about a year. When I see a kid who’s headed for- or already in- trouble, first I try and steer them toward the military because of the good discipline they get. But lately, the military has had to tighten its requirements. If these kids have ever been arrested and fingerprinted, even as juveniles, the military won’t take them. They can no longer forgive and forget with all the terrorism and things like WikiLeaks.”

Reed explained that even two DUIs (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs) can disqualify a person from ever working in a nuclear power plant too.

“We need lots of apprenticeships in the trades,” he said. “That can’t be over-stated.”

He started working with kids while in Miami because he knew how to work on aircraft and the school district needed someone to instruct in its aircraft school.

Reed McBride (Penny Fletcher Photo)Now he goes to four prisons; parents call him directly; he’s pointed to certain youth by schools and other authority officials; and then, there are just those who seek him out because he puts himself out there and makes himself available.

He envisions kids cleaning up the properties in small groups, each with a responsible adult supervisor, and perhaps even living in the homes until they are finished and disposed of by the banks so the properties don’t get torn up again.

“I remembered the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps that operated during the Great Depression. That was a work relief program for young men between 18 and 24, providing manual labor related to conservation and development of our natural resources,” Reed said.

Reed also calls his idea “CCC” only his “CCC” means an alliance of “Courts, Code Enforcement and Contractors.”

“Let’s teach these kids how to fix appliances, set up appliance shops in the garages of these vacant houses. What do they need? A bed and a desk? The mission here isn’t to create an urban complex. It’s to get the place fixed back up and sold- or at least occupied- while teaching kids a trade they can use their whole life.”

After talking with Reed, I wanted to find out what the banks and code enforcement people thought of this idea and spent the rest of the afternoon talking with people around town.

Naturally, I started with Bill Langford, who is my source for these matters with the county’s Code Enforcement Office.

“I believe Mr. McBride’s heart is in the right place but I explained to him that as code enforcement personnel we could have no involvement in any ventures made between the banks and others as long as the properties were within the zoning requirements not exceeding six unrelated individuals sharing a single-family home or any other concerns that may be brought to our attention,” Bill explained. “The Code Enforcement Office would have no authority in any such matter. Anything like that would have to be handled by the Hillsborough County Commission.”

Bill checked with some of the bank representatives he has worked with and also with his department director Dexter Barge and a county attorney.

“I certainly commend Mr. McBride’s efforts for trying to teach these youngsters a trade and pride in something they accomplish but I also believe it takes an individual to change and unless they have committed to change I am not sure there are any programs that can help.”

Reed is also going to banks.

“We just held a presentation in Tampa for a large group from Bank of America,” he told me during an interview at the Village Inn in Riverview last week. “They haven’t gotten back to me yet.”

He said he plans to visit some banks individually in the near future and also hold more large presentations, especially at neighborhood groups and civic organizations.

“Lots of kids just fall through the cracks,” Reed said. “Sometimes, it’s not their fault, it can be parents fighting, homelessness, or just plain poverty that causes them to get in trouble.”

And once kids start to get it trouble, it usually snowballs.

Meanwhile, code enforcement is making progress with the vacancies since forming the new task force in January.

Bill said that Jan. 1 there were 949 vacancies (in the county) due to foreclosures and now that figure is down to 866.

Ed Barnes, president of the Sun City Center Community Association, said there are some problems with vacancies in Sun City Center as well.

While some neighbors cut grass and do some other outside work just to keep a house from looking vacant, others are afraid of liability and won’t go on the property.

“It is trespassing to go on another person’s property, even if the owner is a bank,” Ed said.

Charlotte Clark, bank manager at the Sun City Center branch of the South Shore Community Bank, reminded me that the famous chef Emeril Lagasse started a similar program in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

According to news reports from New Orleans found online, Emeril gave more than $500,000 in grants and started culinary programs for children after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

On the site he is quoted as saying, “The children are our future. We have to do something to give them a helping hand.”

That, says Reed McBride, is just what he intends to do here.

Anyone interested in helping in the effort, or in having him give a presentation about it to a group, may call him at (813) 633-3768 or email jreedmcbride@yahoo.com

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