Group working to improve Highway Park
Jay Meisel | Highlands TodayHIGHWAY PARK - As a child, Vincent Hill would walk to school in Highway Park. He went with his parents to the local grocery story. During his travels back then, he would pass many houses.
Published: February 8, 2013
Published: February 8, 2013
Decades later, the school is long gone and there's no longer a grocery store in the community.
"We had many more houses," he said. "Now there are vacant lots (where some of those houses stood)."
Over the years, the once cohesive, vibrant black community just south of Lake Placid gained a reputation for having a crime problem.
Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said that several years ago, she sent a special unit of deputies to that neighborhood because the crime was disproportionate with other areas.
Since then, she said, the crime level appears to have remained proportionate with other areas of the county, although at times a higher percentage of the crimes there have been more violent.
Now, Hill and members of the Highway Park Neighborhood Preservation Council are working to restore and improve the community.
One goal for this year, Hill said, is the opening of an office. To help raise money for that and for landscaping a public area near it, the Highway Park Rising Black Tie Gala will be held Saturday from 7 p.m. to midnight at the Chateau Elan Hotel and Conference Center.
Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased by calling Tiffany Green at (863) 840-2995.
Hill said the organization hopes to open the office this spring and believes that will help to get more people involved in the community.
Other projects have included efforts to beautify U.S. 27 in the Highway Park area, which resulted in a $500,000 grant, and trying to get a new traffic light, said Evelyn Colon, a former resident, who works to improve the community despite living several hundred miles away.
Colon said that today's Highway Park is "a very different community from what it was" when she grew up there decades earlier.
At that time, she said, "it was a very family-friendly, safe community."
The community had a few churches and a variety of businesses. Now, the most visible business is a liquor store on U.S. 27, not far away from a grocery store that is out of business.
"Now you can buy beer, but no bread," she said. "A lot of properties have not been kept up. There's very few jobs and few opportunities. There's a lot of young men who don't have good jobs."
Hill said some of the problems stem from when the school was closed. That removed a focal point for the community and gradually became a factor in some people moving away and becoming more accustomed to going elsewhere to do shopping and other activities.
But, many people who have moved retain ties with the community and some have returned, Hill said.
Hill believes that before too long Highway Park will have a new grocery store. He's also hoping the organization can bring in more businesses and more jobs, as well as programs that help people build homes on some of the vacant lots.
Currently, the site of the former school is owned by Highlands County. Hill said that as he looked at the property, he envisions a future gymnasium and more supervised activities for youth.
The organization plans to seek some grants and funding for improvements.
"We can't do this alone," Hill said.
He also said that while there's been some progress, "this isn't going to happen overnight."
The important thing is for people to keep working.
"We've started out running and we have traction and we don't want to lose that traction," Hill said.