AVON PARK - It occurred on a day that was marked mostly by celebrations, reflection and honor, but it was also marred by violence, according to a group working to make Avon Park's southside a more prosperous and safer area.
Following the parade down Delaney Avenue to Memorial Field, according to eyewitnesses, a series of fights and brawls broke out in and around the stadium, allegedly caused by a group of between 10 and 15 youths from Sebring coming to Avon Park to get retribution for an assault at a Sebring football game.
NaQuila Hardy, director of arts and repertoire for The National Community Network and Coalition of Highlands Inc., between 2 and 5 p.m. Jan. 20 - Martin Luther King Jr. Day - teenagers from Sebring between 15 and 18 years old went to the field during the post-parade celebration and began initiating fights. She said the fights continued outside of the park gates and the pavilion and blocked a gate to get to Avon Park youth.
Hardy said people at the event began fleeing, anticipating the possibility of gun violence.
"I was getting my kids away from it. We left the field because we didn't know if there would be weapons involved," she said.
The alleged trouble was just another indicator of the need to get the area surrounding south Delaney Avenue an economic uplift and crime dispersal, said Frank Jones, Community Network president. The Network is made up of activists determined to bring economic prosperity to the neighborhood and eliminate crime.
The City of Avon Park has come up with $125,000 and is submitting a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) grant for $500,000 in matching funds for 2014. The CDBG grant is Housing and Urban Development federal money and the $625,000 is earmarked for the revitalization of South Delaney Avenue by adding street lights, burying utilities and power lines, fixing the sewage problem to prevent flooding and enhance the security in the area with security cameras to reduce crime.
Jones said security cameras posted around the community would make the community safer and help business flourish, although the crime that allegedly occurred Jan. 20 was also an indicator of the high unemployment rate in Avon Park's southside.
"Without skills, there's nothing for them to work in. They fight; they don't have anything else to do," he said. "It's a 'Crips-and-Bloods' stereotype. It's a copycat thing. They think it's supposed to be like that. Something has to stop the mindset of how they think life should be."
Jones said the Highlands County Sheriff's Office was called, but only one car showed up and in an e-mail, wrote, "The Sheriff Department didn't care and wanted black people to kill each other during the King parade events. As a result people planned on doing just that, out of fear several people from Avon Park, who had gun permits went home to get their guns. This almost turned out to be a killing field. However, the kids from Sebring ran off."
Nell Hays, sheriff's office public information officer, said a call to the sheriff's office from the area was received at 3:39 p.m. and a unit was on scene three minutes later, when a car license tag was run.
Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said Tuesday the complainant who contacted the sheriff's office was contacted by Chief Dep. Mark Schrader to ask what happened. She said the complainant said there were no problems and was contrary to what was reported by Jones and Hardy. She said an email sent from Jones was also forwarded to public safety director Jason Lister and city manager Julian DeLeon and said she wasn't aware of the Community Network or of its leaders.
"We need to set up a meeting so we can understand his organization and get to know him and see if there's been some miscommunication. We are not aware of any event or incident that rises to the level of the incident Mr. Jones provided," she said.
As of December 2013, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate declined from 7 percent to 6.7 percent in December. In Avon Park, the rate hovered around 11 percent and the average household income was abuot $33,000 in Avon Park, compared to about $51,000 nationally.
Jones said as long the city, law enforcement and politicians continue to ignore the core problems, violence that allegedly happened Jan. 20 and the downfall of local business would continue to get worse.
"Businesses are struggling with all this crime, they can't finance their businesses. It is constant violent outbreaks like this in our community, that makes it imperative to install security cameras on South Delaney Avenue, along with the redevelopment being proposed through the Community Development Block Grant," he said. "We don't need more palm trees, we need more security."