New Tampa is at its best when it comes together to fight for important additions to the community, like the 2017 budget battle that led to an expansion of the New Tampa Rec Center.

Three Master of Social Work (MSW) students at Southeastern University in Lakeland hosted a New Tampa Town Hall meeting on Zoom, hoping to discuss the community’s potential for growth.

The final verdict? To grow, you need to connect.

During the 40-minute Zoom call on May 4, presenters Darlene Starrette, Kyrin Backlund and Melissa Rice (a 20-year resident of New Tampa and the only member of her group that lives here) discussed the opportunities that New Tampa could partake in to increase community engagement. In addition, they held an open forum to hear from the 17 attendees present, including District 7 Tampa City Council member Luis Viera.

“While New Tampa can feel like a disconnected place, residents have voices that matter and we would like to hear your voices,” Starrette said.  

The Zoom call was part of a final project in the course “Generalist Practice with Groups, Communities and Organizations.” The three students completed their first year in the Master’s program and are currently beginning their summer internships. Next year, the students will start their final clinical year to earn their MSW degrees.

Rice was the one who suggested focusing on New Tampa for their final project. She described herself not as a social butterfly, but as someone who was interested in hearing from the people of her community. 

“New Tampa just isn’t talked about much at all,” Rice said. “Living here, I was very interested in other people’s perceptions of the community.”

Luis Viera

One of the main issues discussed during the meeting was the lack of interaction between New Tampa neighborhoods. Viera, who has long argued the same thing, said that New Tampa needed a better collective community identity.

“We see ourselves as Tampa Palms, Hunter’s Green, Richmond Place, Cory Lake Isles, K-Bar Ranch, Grand Hampton, etc. and we don’t see ourselves as New Tampa collectively,” Viera said. 

During the Zoom call, a link was shared to a 42-page community engagement tool kit that covers the demographics of New Tampa, benefits of community engagement and survey results posted on the app Nextdoor. From the responses of 21 residents who took the survey, the lack of social and cultural events in New Tampa was highlighted as a priority. 

“In terms of its cohesiveness and community spirit, it’s not a town — it’s just a zip code,” said Priscilla Stephenson, a Tampa resident who participated in the meeting. 

Rendering of the New Tampa Performing Arts Center.

The New Tampa Performing Arts Center (PAC), which has been 17 years in the making, also was a hot topic during the meeting. The team encouraged the Zoom call participants to email and voice their support for the vote occurring the next day. On May 5, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners approved the construction contract of the PAC.

“In our research, we found that there are a lot of benefits to engaging the community,” Backlund said, “including overall health, sense of belonging and social connectedness.”

Rice talked about how some members of the community wanted better transportation and more affordable housing. From her notes, she recorded that New Tampa residents also wanted to fill some of the open store fronts, build cultural bridges and have more restaurants in the area. 

Although two of the three MSW students aren’t residents of New Tampa, each member has worked towards a common goal of establishing New Tampa’s sense of community. Backlund suggested creating a Facebook page for the New Tampa area to keep the community discussion going. 

While nearby Wesley Chapel has three robust community Facebook pages with nearly 60,000 total combined members, New Tampa’s busiest Facebook page, New Tampa Online Yardsale!, is mostly for selling household items.

“I’m just hoping that this isn’t the end,” Backlund said. “Our goal is to get people on board and start to actually make some significant changes.”

The three MSW students want the residents of New Tampa to take pride in their community and to keep engaging through community events.

“It’s really up to the community to decide that this is a good thing for them and it’s something that they really want to do,” Starrette said. 

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