Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart (left) and Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera at a recent New Tampa townhall.

Since taking over as the Tampa City council member representing District 7, which includes New Tampa, Luis Viera vowed to try to create a more engaged community by developing local leaders who would hold politicians’ feet to the proverbial fire.

One vehicle for doing so: town halls, which are run by the New Tampa Council, a group Viera helped organize that is comprised of leaders from various local communities.

Here’s what you missed from the latest town hall, which was held Nov. 15 at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church on Cross Creek Blvd.

New Tampa Safety Group’s April Ingram.

KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN — April Ingram, who started the New Tampa Safety Group, continued to beat the drum at the town hall for pedestrian safety in the K-Bar Ranch and Cross Creek areas. She also argued again for more crossing guards at Pride and Hunter’s Green Elementary schools, and suggested that the dangerous Kinnan St. and Cross Creek Blvd. intersection in front of Benito Middle School would benefit from more crossing guards, too.

Cindy Stuart, the School Board member for District 3, which includes all of New Tampa’s schools, didn’t disagree. Stuart, a guest speaker at the town hall, said that crossing guards are not offered by the Hillsborough County Sheriff Office (HCSO) at middle or high schools.

“That’s not my decision,” she says, even though she added she has shared data with HCSO that says middle and high school kids are more at risk than elementary school pedestrians. Stuart says that there is no money to hire more crossing guards or increase their pay, but added that HCSO will be requesting additional funds to do so.

Stuart, who chairs Hillsborough’s School Transportation Working Group (STWG), said the only way to get a crossing guard at Benito (or Wharton) would be to petition HCSO. You could hear light bulbs popping over the heads of many of the 50 or so residents in attendance.

DRIVE, DON’T TEXT — Stuart also said she has had numerous meetings about pedestrian safety in New Tampa, and there are minor changes in the works, such as moving the Benito Middle School bike rack from the side of the school where the buses operate closer to the front of the school, and clearing some trees to remove visual hindrances.

While students need to be taught the safest places to cross streets and not to assume that a red light means a car will necessarily stop, Stuart told the audience that it’s the adults who need to start paying more attention.

“The distracted driving in this community is horrible,” she said. “We have to stop.”

SWALLOWED UP? — A few residents in attendance expressed concerns that New Tampa is getting “swallowed up” by Wesley Chapel, due to the number of businesses that have been closing south of the Pasco line lately. One even suggested starting a grass roots organization to stop spending money in Wesley Chapel, while others worried that the two new tax referendums that recently passed (and have bumped the county’s sales tax to 8.5 percent) will only make it harder on local businesses.

Brad Suder, the superintendent of planning & design at the City of Tampa’s Parks & Recreation Department.

PARK NEWS — Brad Suder, the superintendent of planning & design at the City of Tampa’s Parks & Recreation Department, also was in attendance and provided some of the most well-received news of the night.

According to Suder, the five-acre New Tampa Sensory Park (one of Viera’s pet projects), planned for the land just south of BJ’s Wholesale Club on Commerce Palms Dr. in Tampa Palms, is not only proceeding, it is, “starting to become a dynamite-looking park.”

Suder, a New Tampa resident, said the original plans left him underwhelmed, but a new approach has yielded fantastic results. The proposed design should be completed by the middle of December.

Now comes the hard part: getting the money to actually build it.

While the $90,000 for the study and design was in last year’s City of Tampa budget, construction will require another $2-million that will have to be approved in this year’s budget come October 2019. It remains to be seen how a new mayor, who will be elected this spring, will affect those plans.

MORE MORE MORE — It was suggested by Arbor Greene’s Laura Blank that perhaps a group should be formed — a “town council” — to meet more frequently about issues residents in New Tampa may want to talk about. For example, why are there so many pizza places on Cross Creek Blvd.? And how about encouraging a breakfast restaurant to set up shop in New Tampa?

Jim Davison, who lost in his bid for the District 7 seat to Viera in 2016, suggested something like Café con Tampa, a weekly neighborhood gathering in South Tampa —often hosted by an area restaurant — where people show up to listen to special guests and talk about various issues.

It wasn’t clear if Davison was suggesting that these could be supplemental to the town halls, or a replacement for them. Davison lamented that “three months later, no one remembers what the hell we talked about.”

Viera, who defeated Davison to win his city council seat, took offense to that claim, pointing out that one town hall (at the New Tampa Recreation Center, or NTRC) was the launching point for local activists to get the NTRC expansion into the budget and approved, while other meetings have sparked things like Ingram’s safety group and a current study to repave the bike/pedestrian paths on New Tampa Blvd. in West Meadows.

MORE PARK TALK — K-BAR PARK ON HOLD? — Despite Davison’s claims, it was apparent that not everyone forgets what was said at previous town halls. K-Bar Ranch’s Will Tyson asked how the plans were coming along for the 50+-acre park planned for K-Bar Ranch that was talked about at the town hall in May.

Viera said that there hasn’t been any progress on the K-Bar park, as the city is trying to pay off some of its debt.

“It was never meant to be on the imminent horizon,” Viera said, putting a timeframe of 1-3 years on getting that park project built.

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