The Florida League of Cities recently announced that the City of Clermont is the recipient of the 2018 Spirit Award. The Spirit Award is the League’s highest and most prestigious award recognizing a city that has created and implemented an exemplary program to successfully serve it communities.

The award was presented to the City of Clermont at its council meeting on Tuesday, June 27.

The City of Clermont’swinning entry, The Oakhurst Project, changed the crime-ridden neighborhood of Oakhurst into a crime-free neighborhood through a citywide effort that allowed police to spend a portion of their time beautifying the neighborhood and connecting with residents.

The Oakhurst Project:

In 1993, Oakhurst, a new housing project, came to Clermont. The 14-unit complex, located in a historic neighborhood called Lincoln Park, offered people who were renting an opportunity to own their own homes. Over time, some homes became rentals with 10-to-20 residents in a 3-bedroom house. Crime and neglect replaced the once beautiful homes. Original owners feared for their lives. Drug-dealing and assaults became common.

For years, the Oakhurst neighborhood had the highest number of calls for service, including complaints about assaults, drug activity, noise, suspicious activity and code-enforcement violations. Traditional law-enforcement action and intentional community-policing had almost no effect on the crime statistics, and more importantly, on the deteriorating quality of life of the residents living in the 14 duplexes that make up Oakhurst.

“It had become routine to go, arrest and standby for the next call,” said Clermont police Officer David Colon. Colon and Clermont Chief Charles Broadway, as well as Colon’s supervisors Sgt. Malcolm Draper and Sgt. Josue Martinez, had a growing frustration over the problems at Oakhurst that resisted the department’s efforts.

When Colon went to Chief Charles Broadway about implementing an initiative that would help the residents of Oakhurst, they discussed the findings of a 2015 presidential task force which found that the public wanted to feel they can trust the police.

Colon remembered what it was like growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Miami.

In January 2017, Clermont police, under the leadership of Officer David Colon, started the Oakhurst Project

Colon and Broadway say that when they first knocked on doors at Oakhurst and held a community meeting at a nearby church, they were welcomed; but the residents were highly skeptical. Some landlords were even more skeptical, fearing judgment, bad publicity or even aggressive code-enforcement action. Colon was persistent, meeting one reluctant landlord for coffee in a city 15 miles away. Police officers no longer sat in their patrol cars. They got out and talked to the residents and really listened. The breakfast and potluck meals, with support from companies such as Chick-fil-A, gave residents and law-enforcement officers a chance to bond.

The cost to the City was zero and focused on collaborating with the residents, landlords, local businesses and nonprofits with the help of 150 volunteers who gave more than 300 hours of their time to beautify the neighborhood, build a sense of community and provide a safe environment. Volunteers came from as far away as Massachusetts to help clean and paint. Others pressure-washed the homes and Lowe’s donated all the paint necessary to give every home a fresh, peachy exterior.

Not everything went perfectly. Midway through the project, in the early morning hours of June 11, 2017, there was a homicide in the middle of the parking lot. Ronald Stedelin, a 30-year-old white male, who did not live at Oakhurst, suffered a single gunshot to the head. He died in the parking lot.

“At first, it seemed like a real setback,” Colon said. “Then detectives received an outpouring of support and cooperation in identifying two suspects who were arrested”.

It was a wake-up call for everyone.  The walk-and-talks were stepped up. Landlords started evicting people who were not complying with their contracts.

In August, the project reached a tipping point with hardly any calls for service. By the end of the year, the only calls were for information or proactive calls distributing food, holiday gifts or projects to improve the neighborhood.

The initiative has realized a drop in crime and created a neighborhood that has had zero calls for service in months! A neighborhood went from crime-ridden to crime free.  The cost to the city: $0.

In 2018, there continues to be no calls for service. Other law-enforcement agencies heard about the Oakhurst Project. The 48th Annual Southern States Crime Prevention Conference invited Clermont police to present the Oakhurst Project at its Oct. 22-26 conference in Sarasota. The conference presented Clermont police with a plaque, and a number of agencies across Florida and out-of-state, including as far away as Africa, expressed interest in duplicating the basic tenets of the plan.

Police plan to expand the project to other neighborhoods. For Ruby McCoy, affectionately known to her neighbors as “Miss Ruby,” it means she can get out of her car and walk, not run, to her front door without fear.

“We are honored and humbled by this incredible acknowledgment of the Oakhurst Project and the City of Clermont,” said City Manager Darren Gray. “We hope the project will be a model for building hope in neighborhoods throughout Florida.”

Chief Charles Broadway said the award was a wonderful acknowledgment of the project and how lives were changed. “This award is a result of the efforts of the men and women of the Clermont Police Department working with the community to identify issues and adopt community-policing strategies to reduce crime, enhance the quality of life while building and maintaining trust,” Broadway said.

City of Clermont Mayor Gail Ash and City Manager Darren Gray