LAKELAND — The Tampa community gathered Jan. 23 to celebrate the groundbreaking of what will soon be their new neighborhood in Lakeland.
About 100 members of the community were moved off the Tribe’s land in 1999 to make way for what would become the Tampa Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The community scattered far and wide as they found homes in towns around the central Florida region, from Tampa to Orlando and beyond.
“We are trying to get our community back together,” said Richard Henry, Tampa Reservation administrator. “Most haven’t lived on a reservation before, this will be a first. We want to establish more culture and get younger people interested so they can step up and learn and then carry our history with them.”
The 752 acre site will include 150 homes on 1-acre lots, a community center and more when the project is complete. Medicine man Bobby Henry would like to see a farm on the site to teach the next generation.
“We’ve been waiting and waiting,” Henry said. “I feel real good about today. I need to keep talking to the young people, they don’t know enough about the culture. I just want to make people understand. As I get older, I feel like I want to go faster and do more things. I’m going to keep telling our people’s story.”
Brighton Councilman Andrew J. Bowers Jr. has been involved in the process of creating a community near Tampa from nearly the beginning.
“Families here want to get back together and live among themselves,” Councilman Bowers said. “When the casino came in and they had to move out, they wound up scattered throughout Hillsborough County. We had to find an area they could get together. We searched long and hard and settled on this land.”
The Tribe purchased the land in 2006 and started the process to get the federal government to put into trust, which finally happened in 2016.
“We’ve been asking for so many years,” Nancy Frank said. “It’ll be good to see the young ones make it their home. This is a chance for us to live together as a family.”
The crowd gathered on the edge of the property’s cypress swamp, where an excavator and a bulldozer flanked a large pile of dirt. Tribal and local dignitaries lifted golden shovels, pushed them into the dirt and heaved it away as the official groundbreaking took place.
The atmosphere was festive and Tribal members got into the spirit of the day. Some posed for photos; others shoveled the dirt.
“We’ve heard this voice since the early 1980s,” said Randy Santiago. “The lord has come through for our people. Praise God.”
Tina Smith moved from Bradenton to Tampa in 1980 and then to Brandon when Tribal members were moved off the Tampa land. It was hard for her to balance being Native American without having a Seminole community nearby.
“It will be good to get a reservation established for our community,” Smith said. “I hope my son will move here, it’ll be good for him to be with other Native Americans.”
Dylanie Henry and Stacy Smith were very enthusiastic about the Lakeland property.
“It will be good for my daughter to grow up with the community,” said Henry, with daughter Annie Washington, 1, in her arms.
“It’s harder being in the city.”
“I’m glad I’m able to see it happen,” Smith said. “We are an established Tribe, but it will be good to have a place to go. It’s good to be back out in the woods, it’s where we belong.”