City officials seek neighborhoods’ support for bringing change to Southside

A meeting of the minds

A surprisingly large crowd turned out for a recent meeting with city government officials.
Photos by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

City officials came to give Southside residents an update on plans to improve neighborhoods in the area. They got an earful during a lively meeting billed as Tallahassee in Progress at Walker/Ford Center.

An estimated 200 people turned out for what officials said is the first of many more similar meetings aimed at getting the involvement of area residents. Members of the entire City Commission showed up along with staff and other leaders in government, promising to develop a relationship to ultimately solve problems that plague the neighborhoods.

“What we are trying to do now is regain the public’s trust,” said first-term commission Dianne Williams-Cox,” who lives on the Southside. “What the city manager did tonight was make sure that everyone that had a concern got connected with somebody who could answer their question. We are all committed to do the right thing.”

One resounding theme heard from officials was that improving Southside neighborhoods will take the involvement of residents. They addressed flooding, infrastructure for growth, while discussing changes, some that could occur in the next five years or sooner.

“We can’t do it alone,” said Mayor John Dailey. “We have to work together. We are dedicated to provide world-class services to every one of you.”

However, the tone of questions from the audience implied that residents have waited long enough to get the government’s attention to their concerns. 

“It’s about how quickly can we resolve these issues; how do we tackle these issues,” said City Manager Reese Goad, who facilitated the meeting. “I think it will take time to sink in for everybody, including us. Issues wouldn’t be solved overnight; they will take time.”

Most of the speakers who had specific concerns were referred to city personnel for assistance in getting to the root of their problem. Elaine Bryant, who was recently appointed to the Commission, echoed the sentiment of her peers.

“If everyone comes together, put our heads together we can actually come away with the desired results,” Bryant said.

Each of the individuals who made a presentation on behalf of the government urged residents to follow the lead of the Greater Bond Neighborhood Association. The association recently received funding approval for the revitalization of the Bond Neighborhood, a block from where the meeting took place.

The four-pronged plan emphasizes beautification, public safety, land use and economic development. The entire project would cost just over $6 million, $500,000 of which was approved by the Community Redevelopment Agency last month.

Assistant city manager Cynthia Barber was one of the liaisons between the Bond association and the city.

What the association presented to the CRA is “an outstanding effort of engagement unlike any that I’ve actually seen,” Barber said.

“We’ve done a lot but there is a lot more for us to do,” added Barber, who grew up on the Southside. “There is an ever-increasing need for us to work together in our community to make improvements. If we are going to have sustained, lasting change we’re going to have to work together.”

Not everyone who attended the meeting was convinced that change will come because the government came to them. Commissioner Jeremy Matlow, who told his story of growing up in poverty on the Southside during his recent campaign, said he could appreciate why some are leery of government.

 “In my lifetime, you look at plans 25 years ago that never came to fruition,” Matlow said. “We’ve been planning and planning. It’s time to get something done. What the Bond community brought is a good step. The public is not going to trust us until they see the receipts but at the same time we need the public getting involved.”

Some of the results of resident engagement with their city government were obvious, especially in the area of crime reduction. Tallahassee Police Department Chief Michael DeLeo said residents’ involvement has led to a second consecutive year of reduction in the city’s crime rate.

He showed a map that outlined areas on the Southside where there has been drastic reduction of crime activities, primary in Bond. That wouldn’t have happened if residents weren’t involved, he said.

He encouraged residents to get involved in TPD’s Neighborhood Public Safety Initiative. 

“Engagement is the key because you know better about what goes on in your neighborhood,” said DeLeo. “The officers are there 10 or 12 hours but you are there all the time so the better information that we share, the more effective we are.”

DeLeo also gave details on plans to move TPD headquarters to a location near Orange Avenue and South Monroe Street. He said the facility will be large enough to host community meetings such as the one where he spoke, as well as put officers in a position to have more community engagement.

Residents of the Jake Gaither Neighborhood seemingly are getting assistance with the overgrowth shrubs in an area near Springsax Park. Ashley Edwards, director of parks, recreation and neighborhood affairs, assured residents that the troublesome issue of overgrowth is being addressed. 

 Abandoned or dilapidated homes also have long been a concern of Southside residents, an issue that Commissioner Curtis Richardson said is being addressed. He suggested the city might impose eminent domain ordinance if necessary as a fix.

“What we are trying to do through these efforts is to improve the housing stock in those areas; maybe provide some affordable housing,” Richardson said. “We are running out of affordable housing in the city of Tallahassee. This is a serious issue so that’s one of the things we are trying to address.”