The Parker Street neighborhood where 11 men were wounded in a drive-by attack Monday afternoon is in a part of town where city leaders have invested nearly $7 million for redevelopment in the last decade. But the Midtown area is still emerging from blight, a homeless population, drug dealing and prostitution.
Lakeland Police Chief Sam Taylor said at least two gunmen in a dark blue Nissan rolled their windows down and began shooting at 3:43 Monday afternoon, leaving 11 people injured, two of them critically. It took place within a minute after young children had climbed off a school bus to go home.
“There wasn’t an unknown for that area being problematic,” Mayor Bill Mutz said. “We have to continue to button it up. And there’s places like that, other places like that, in the city and we have to do one area at a time and this is a very unfortunate outcome.”
The Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency’s Midtown district stretches from the Intown bypass – George Jenkins Boulevard — to Interstate 4. The area is anchored by the Medical District, Joker Marchant Stadium and Mass Market.
In 2001, the city came up with a plan to tackle the issues in Midtown, including:
- Neighborhood preservation and enhancement
- Development corridor intensification and beautification
- A mixed-use activity center
- Area-wide open space and infrastructure improvement
“Keep in mind Midtown is much larger than this neighborhood, but the CRA has made heavy investments in the Parker Street neighborhood because of its potential and proximity to downtown and the medical district,” CRA Manager Valerie Ferrell said Tuesday afternoon. “The CRA funding comes from property tax increment revenue, or increased values in the districts. Overall, Midtown has $6.9 million in tax increment revenues in FY23.”
In the last decade, the CRA has spent nearly $6 million – or partnered with investors – on buying and refurbishing properties along or just off of Massachusetts Avenue, including The Yard on Mass, Mass Market – which includes Haus 820 and ARTiFact — Crystal’s World of Dance and The Well, a business and event space on Parker Street.
The city also foreclosed on a blighted, abandoned apartment building on Vermont Avenue and, working with Talbot House, turned it into affordable housing for low-income individuals, people with disabilities and veterans.
The city also has an infill program to help investors buy vacant lots and build homes, spending $225,000 on at least four properties.
Weaving together contiguous properties that can be packaged for cohesive development in the Parker Street area is part of the city’s Land Bank program, an inventory of property that can be transformed for affordable housing.
The CRA sells this land to developers at 120% of assessed value, if they agree to develop and sell it to someone who qualifies for affordable housing. The intent of the program is to replace vacant infill lots that the city has been maintaining with new low-to moderate-income homebuyers.
North Iowa Avenue between Parker Street and Memorial Boulevard – the area where the shooting took place — is a part of the CRA’s plans for refurbishment.
About 100 years ago, it was a street lined with craftsman-style bungalows, homes for working-class families to raise children. Now, many of those homes are in disrepair, have absentee landlords, or have been replaced with subsidized-housing duplexes or apartment buildings or have been torn down, leaving the scab of a vacant lot filled with litter and, sometimes, the campsites of the homeless. One elderly man was seen Tuesday afternoon sitting in his driveway among years’ worth of hoarded boxes and junk.
Northeast Lakeland’s patrol zones C and D saw 30.99% of all of LPD’s 78,000 calls in 2021. Police Department spokeswoman Robin Tillett said the number for the Northeast district is artificially inflated by a high number of calls coming when crime and injury victims are taken to Lakeland Regional Health and their reports are taken there.
The area of the shooting, Zone D, had the highest number of calls, with 12,453 – more than 19%.
Mutz acknowledged that the transformation is slow.
“That is all in our infill area, where we are working to replace empty lots with housing — and we have some wonderful private partnership investors in that area who have done so, some of whom are negatively impacted and already own some of the units that are there by the scare of this,” Mutz said Tuesday afternoon. “But I think it emphasizes the importance for all lot owners to work together to eliminate areas that provide for that kind of activity and for vice. And so we will double down and work more diligently to try and get both units built there as well as owners that don’t want to build units to work to help cooperate to keep those areas that we can patrol well to avoid this kind of activity in the future.”
The CRA has also provided more than $775,000 in partnering with developers or business owners to redevelop existing structures, including the Polk County Tax Collector’s Office. That building, a former Publix store and then a string of car dealerships, has become a showpiece along the Massachusetts Avenue corridor, with its neon green sign and art deco design.
Polk County Tax Collector Joe Tedder said in about 2012, he was looking for a one-story building with approximately 25,000 square feet of space, ample parking and centrally located in Lakeland, but he had reservations about the building he finally chose because of the blight in the area.
“When you create all those parameters, you don’t have many options and I looked at this building two or three times and I kept thinking, you know, this is not an area of Lakeland that I want customers to have to come to,” Tedder said. Then “I thought, you know, well, if I’m going to end up spending a bunch of money on a building, who else is going to spend it on this building? And who’s going to make this kind of investment in this part of Lakeland? And so I thought, you know, the government, the citizens’ money is going to end up paying for this thing, let me do it and then try to help an area that the city and private investors are already trying to lift up. It has turned out to be a great building. It’s very functional. It’s, you know, it’s an expensive building to maintain because it’s so dadgum old, but it’s turned out to be a great building.”
Tedder said the total price tag in 2013 was about $4.5 million, with the CRA contributing $650,000, the Board of County Commissioners contributing $1 million and his office paying for everything else.
There was one more line item he had to factor in – deputies to maintain security in all of the tax collector’s offices throughout the county, particularly when he began handling driver’s licenses for frustrated customers who had forgotten to bring one document or another. He said he pays a total of about $650,000 annually for two deputies in Lakeland, and one each in Lake Wales, Davenport and Bartow.
In addition to maintaining order inside the office, the deputies ensure safety in the parking lot, where panhandlers and the homeless are often just steps away on the sidewalk, at Talbot House or Lighthouse Ministries or loitering in any one of a number of vacant lots in the neighborhood.
Tedder said the shooting was “very concerning for us. Obviously this area of Lakeland has its challenges from time to time, but it’s a lot better than it used to be. And it’s expensive for us to deal with our challenges, but we try to create as safe an environment as we can for our staff and the customers.”
At night, the landscape can change. He said on occasion, people have come into the office. They sleep or toilet in the bushes around the building.
“So that does become a problem,” he said. “That is one reason we do have uniformed deputies here during working hours to try to maintain that those people are not interfering with customers or staff.”
He said issues arise in the neighborhood as a whole when someone has been kicked out of places like Talbot House or Lighthouse Ministries for substance abuse, violence or disobeying the rules.
“I don’t know what the solution is or whatever it is, it’s expensive,” Tedder said. “You know, the Police Department needs to continue to allocate resources that can to be a visible presence around this area.”
Historic preservationist and developer Gregory Fancelli said he helped to solve similar problems in Dixieland.
“In 2015 there were people doing drugs on the roof of (what is now) Born & Bread and defecating in the back” lot, he said in a series of text messages. When asked how he handled things, he said, “Lights, cameras … and no action. Rules, creating an environment that makes it obvious that kind of behavior is not tolerated. With proper planning, land development and community cooperation, there is nothing that cannot be addressed and remedied. We have the opportunity to create a better Lakeland, especially in a neighborhood like the North Iowa and East Plum St. What happened last night is very sad. It couldn’t have been predicted, but we have an incredibly dedicated police force which, without a doubt, will take all necessary steps to determine who those responsible are.”
Fancelli has bought property south of George Jenkins Boulevard (named for his grandfather) and plans to build a mixed-use development that will give an architectural nod to the long-gone Hotel Thelma, with shops, restaurants, and apartments.
He still hopes to turn a non-functioning chapel on the land into some kind of entertainment space. The City Commission recently denied a conditional-use permit to business owner Stuart Simm, who had hoped to turn the chapel into a bar and event space.
“The area I’m investing in is south of the In-Town Bypass,” Fancelli said. “It may be close, but having a barrier like that makes it light years away.”
He said that while the In-Town Bypass allows a better flow of traffic, it essentially cut off the Midtown neighborhood from the Downtown area when it was built in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Pedestrians have to cross six to eight lanes of traffic to go from Midtown to Downtown.
“It would have helped in that sense to have allowed an underpass walkway to keep the neighborhoods flowing together,” Fancelli said.
He commended the work of Parker Street Ministries and Director Tim Mitchell in helping to turn the Midtown neighborhood around by renovating and repopulating single family homes with families. He said he and his mother, Publix heiress Julie Fancelli, have been financial and moral supporters of their efforts for many years.
According to its website, since 1996, Parker Street Ministries has sought “to join God’s transformation of our neighborhood through living and working in the neighborhood, through proven programs, and through building up others to make possible desirable neighborhoods, lifetime learners, financial sustainability, and healthy communities for all.”
Their programs include:
- Free after-school and year-round care — for neighborhood children
- A Young Adult Program that teaches life skills and finances
- Workforce Lab Program that teaches financial capability for young high schoolers, who also exercise soft job skills
- Neighborhood revitalization that uses volunteers and partnerships with landlords, residents, and outside agencies to help stabilize families and beautify the blighted spaces in the neighborhood.
- Financial fitness program for all ages
- Health programs for all ages
- Neighborhood events
- An annual Christmas gift drive
Mitchell declined to talk about the shooting on Tuesday afternoon. Fancelli said his reluctance is understandable.
“It is a very fragile environment at this time, but tremendous progress has been made over the past 20 years thanks to all the good work Tim Mitchell and Parker Street Ministries have done there,” he said. “They are walking a very fine line of balancing making the neighborhood a more pleasant place to live and not allowing it to gentrify too quickly where it wouldn’t be affordable to the same families they are finding a new home for … The core of downtown needs to be high value, high yield, while the surrounding areas need to allow all other members of the community to find a proper place to live and work.”
Both of those places should be safe, he said.
Terry Coney, president of the NAACP’s Lakeland branch agrees. He held an impromptu press conference Tuesday at Lakeland Police headquarters.
He told LkldNow that he and other leaders from lakeland’s Black community gathered to condemn violence in the city.
“Violence is not acceptable. Violence is not the answer,” Coney said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s violence from a rogue police officer or from members of the community. All violence should elicit outrage. We support Lakeland Police Department in their investigation to bring all suspects involved in this heinous crime to face our justice system. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Only Love defeats hate and violence.’ “
Chief Taylor said at a Tuesday morning media briefing that police found a car in a west Lakeland neighborhood that they believe was used in the shootings. Taylor hinted that drugs were involved.
“We found a (felony) quantity of marijuana at the scene that was packaged for sale, so, I mean, you can draw the nexus that it probably has something to do with narcotics.”
He said his investigators have also heard that gang violence could be involved. But he said that won’t be known until the suspects are apprehended. In the meantime, he said, his officers are working to protect the area’s residents.
“There are a lot of good people that live in that neighborhood,” Taylor said. “Certainly it’s a challenged area. We are constantly with our neighborhood liaison folks, constantly working with people in that area to improve their lives … We’ve done quite a few search warrants and we’ve tried to remove the criminal element out of that neighborhood to the extent that we can, but we’ve worked with that neighborhood for many, many, many years to try and help improve it.”
Taylor said while he has officers patrol the area, he can’t post someone there 24/7.
“We do the best we can with what we have and we certainly have put quite a few people in jail from that area,” Taylor said. “But we are still trying to remove the criminal element, but we’re not there all the time. So about as quick as we leave and you know, they go back to selling their wares.”
At an apartment complex on Monday evening, Tina Smith talked as blue and red police lights swirled accross her face. She said she pulled her children inside their apartment when she heard six seconds of non-stop gunfire just a few yards away from them, ordering the 7- and 9-year-olds onto the floor. She said she didn’t let her children play outside without direct supervision even before this.
“Bullets don’t have names,” Smith said.
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