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Tampa Innovation Partnership Receives Grant To Combat Poverty In University Area

A man in a suit gestures with his hands as he speaks at a podium
Estella Gray
Mark Sharpe, executive director of the Tampa Innovation Partnership, says the involvement of companies like Florida Blue should help lift up residents of the area.

The Tampa Innovation Partnership received a $750,000 grant from Florida Blue last week to help combat poverty in the city’s University Area community.

Community leaders expressed their commitment to fighting generational poverty in one of Hillsborough County’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Tampa Innovation Partnership received a $750,000 grant from Florida Blue last week for its work in the city’s University Area community.

The gift is part of Blue Cross Blue Shield’s “Growing Resilient Communities” initiative to promote equity in select zip codes across Florida. In total, the insurance company has invested more than $1.7 million into the North Tampa community.

“This undertaking brings people together to really launch a new design,” said Pat Geraghty, president and CEO of Florida Blue. “This is about lifting the community and giving it opportunity; to really improve the community around this University Center.”

The area around the University of South Florida Tampa campus and the University Mall is one of Hillsborough County’s poorest. According to U.S. Census data, about 30 percent of residents in the 33612 and 33613 zip codes live under the poverty line. The county’s poverty rate averages around 20 percent.

The median household income in the area is around $32,000, much lower than the county’s median of $59,000.

The grant from Florida Blue will be used to add different educational and work opportunities to the community. The partnership is attempting to change the identity of the University Area from “Suitcase City” — so named because of its reputation as a neighborhood for transient residents — to the “Uptown Innovation District.”

A group of people sit in chairs facing a screen and presentation.
Jacob Wentz
WUSF Public Media
The announcement was made to a crowd of business and community leaders in the Tampa neighborhood.

“I think what you're going to see over time is dramatic transformation,” said Mark Sharpe, executive director of the Tampa Innovation Partnership.

“We're bringing together institutions, we're bringing together people, we're bringing together resources. We're going to lift up the community, and it's going to be very special.”

The announcement was made Friday morning at Tampa Underground, a faith-based organization in University Mall. It’s one of the first groups brought in to revamp the mall and spark change within the community.

“There were six owners of this mall, which kind of helps explain why it was fragmented and in decline,” Sharpe said. “And so now it's under one owner who has already brought in the Underground, the Vū studio, as well as the USF Institute of Applied Engineering upstairs.”

Working with the Innovation Partnership, those stakeholders will provide opportunities for community members to learn about robotics, digital labs, and medical technician skills.

“The outcome is going to be that we're going to be building a powerful community with investors, but we're going to bring the community in, we're not going to chase the community away," Sharpe said.

The announcement was made to a crowd of business and community leaders from the neighborhood. Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, was among those in attendance.

“This is an amazing project and has been long needed for this community out here,” Lewis said. “I love how they want to recoin and rephrase this community. I was always taught you are what you feel. And if they feel like they're better, then they can do better.”

Two people pose together in a room full of other people
Jacob Wentz
WUSF Public Media
"I'm just so amazed and so grateful that someone like Mark Sharpe (left) actually thought about it to care and fight to do this," said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP.

Speakers from the partnership emphasized the importance of including community members in the economic development of the area.

They warned of displacing residents through gentrification, a topic of concern in nearby Ybor City and St. Petersburg.

“The people are the fabric of this community,” Lewis said. “The goal is to keep that in place and help uplift them and push them to that level where they need to be to be self-sufficient, resilient, independent, and productive citizens.”

The Innovation Partnership is hopeful that over the next few years, they will be able to chip away at inequality within the area.

Community leaders expressed that change will not happen overnight, especially with the complex goals they set for themselves.

“You’ve gotta dream big, and then you’ve gotta execute,” Sharpe, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner, said. “I've always taken on super challenges. I believe that when you put your mind to it, you can make a dent in the universe. And we're going to make that dent.”

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.
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