PALMETTO — The city of Palmetto has been spared the brunt of Manatee County’s record homicide rate, but officials say they are not immune to crime and feel their neighbor’s pain. So in response, the city unveiled a plan Wednesday to create a “safe neighborhoods district” allowed by state law as part of the city’s Community Redevelopment Area’s $4.5 million budget this year.
The $1.2 million plan will include aggressive efforts in the areas of community policing, code enforcement and beautification of areas plagued by slum and blight. Most importantly, officials say the program represents a concerted effort to partner with nonprofit groups to offer opportunity and hope to the city’s most at-risk youths.
Palmetto police reported a 39.6 percent drop in crime in the city in the first six months of this year compared to the same period in 2008, but the positive statistics do not mean Palmetto does not have its problem areas.
“By the grace of God, we haven’t had a homicide in the city this year,” said Palmetto Police Chief Garry Lowe. “But we really don’t look at it that way. All of the law enforcement agencies in Manatee are taking this problem upon ourselves. It’s everyone’s problem. We are hoping what we do catches on and everybody wants to do it.”
Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant agreed, saying the slaying of 21-year-old Julius Brown last week on 21st Street East, just over the county line from Palmetto, brought home her desire to move forward with the Safe Neighborhoods plan, which has been in the planning for months. “What I like about it is it is about one on one, neighborhood by neighborhood, taking on the problems that are creating this violence,” Bryant said.
As part of a CRA, which were created by the legislature in the 1980s to provide funding for counties and cities to combat blight in neighborhoods, state law also allows the funding of safe neighborbood districts.
The creation of a district allows cities to use CRA funds for policing plans, which Lowe will spearhead, including the analysis of crimes statistics so CRA funding can go to the neighborhoods most in need.
Once the neighborhoods, which will be included in the district, are identified, the district will be established neighborhood by neighborhood. “We are going to look hard at the crime data to see where the crime is and target those neighborhoods. We probably aren’t going to start with the worst so we can look at the process and figure out how to succeed,” said CRA administrator Jeff Burton. “Once we have the ingredients to make it taste good, then we take on the more difficult areas on by one.”
What do officials hope residents will see on the ground? Police and pastors walking the streets, getting to know the neighborhoods they police and preach in, according to Lowe.
A $200,000 demolition project to take down buildings that have been condemned; in the past, there has been no money to take them down, Bryant said. The hiring of nonprofit builders to come in and replace those properties with affordable housing.
A program in which waste management companies offer residents in the safe neighborhoods district free chances to discard the old appliances, vehicles and trash that make a neighborhood look rundown.
The CRA is hoping to have homeowners step up and agree to paint their homes if offered the paint to do it, Lowe said. But the biggest hope is that the CRA will partner with non-profits to come into the city and offer services, as well as providing the role models to bring about civic pride, Burton said.
The first such non-profit that has signed on is run by one of Palmetto’s best known native sons, former pro football great Henry Lawrence.
His Henry Lawrence Youth Foundation in Palmetto is aiming its mission to provide life skills development, job creation, sports camps, and youth summits in the safe neighborhoods district. “This is about changing minds,” said foundation executive director Geneva Presha. “That is the role we can play, and so many other programs can, too.”