October 4, 2023
Park Place

Photo: Tandem Stills + Motion and Live Wildly

Residents work the Harvest Hope community garden. The park also includes sports fields, a fishing pond, a community center and a playground.


Park Place

A Tampa community turns contaminated, vacant land into a seven-acre park and community garden.

Dave Scheiber | 5/17/2023

Sarah Combs grew up a farmer’s daughter. From an early age, she harvested crops on the family’s spread in a tiny, tight-knit Colorado town, developed a strong work ethic and constantly engaged with neighbors. It was a long way from north Tampa, an area that over the years has been beset by poverty.

Nearly a decade ago, when Combs, executive director and CEO of the University Area Community Development Corp., and her team asked residents what they wanted to see on a blighted property in the center of the neighborhood, she expected to hear suggestions for housing or perhaps a grocery store. But the overwhelming response was a park. “We didn’t think they’d say that,” Combs says. “But they said, ‘We want a safe place for our kids to play and for us to meet our neighbors.’ They wanted a social connectivity that was missing.”

Since then, seven acres of previously tainted, abandoned land have become an oasis for residents now called Harvest Hope Park. The site was adjacent to an area where power poles were once stored, leaving behind arsenic contamination. The area is one of the poorest in Hillsborough County. The neighborhood’s 10,000 residents have an average per capita income of about $12,000 a year. Many of the residents immigrated from Mexico and Central America in search of work.

In an area primarily zoned for residences but surrounded by commercial and formerly industrial properties, the site was overgrown with trees and brush and was being used as an illicit dumping ground for nearby apartment complexes and businesses. Local officials believed the dirt and groundwater were contaminated, with a large, polluted pond in one corner of the lot.

Government records show the neighbors had additional reason for concern. Their neighborhood of just 1.35 square miles also included 18 biomedical waste facilities, 27 hazardous waste facilities, 34 large quantity generators of hazardous waste, 22 petroleum contamination monitoring sites, 33 storage tank contamination monitoring facilities of which 24 were closed or inactive, in addition to 14 sites the state had designated as risky, mainly petroleum and dry-cleaning facilities.

The University Area Community Development Corp. partnered with University of South Florida professor Christian Wells, an applied environmental anthropologist, to pursue the project. Wells and his graduate students won a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, allowing them to help UACDC make plans for the site, such as community surveys, economic studies and environmental impact reports.

The team worked with Vistra, a communications consulting firm located near the project area, to develop a website that was updated with project findings, data, news, events and resources for the community.

After five years of work that included clearing the area and bringing in clean dirt to restore the ground, the grand opening of Harvest Hope Park was held in 2019 as residents, officials and the wider community celebrated. Today, the site has sports fields, a fishing pond, a community center, a garden and a playground. “It’s really changed the entire character of the community,” Wells says. “Over such a short period of time, you wonder how on earth did this happen? It was really the work of the UACDC and Sarah Combs.”

Building trust took time. Combs put up signs in English and Spanish: “This garden is free. It’s for you.”

Tags: Real Estate, Feature

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