Sheets of white paint peel off the wooden schoolhouse. Broken and boarded windows dot the 77-year-old structure. Nearby, a rusted slide catches the rain. Not so long ago, this Plant City community was the epicenter of a fledgling community of freed slaves. Today, the historic Glover School sits mostly empty, awaiting a $740,300 renovation, part of which was promised by Hillsborough County as far back as 2005.
Community leaders are getting anxious.
"You hate to point fingers," said Bill Thomas, treasurer of Bealsville Inc., the nonprofit organization that owns the school.
But Thomas and other Bealsville leaders are flummoxed that since being awarded two federal Community Development Block Grants — $316,900 in 2005 and $423,400 in 2007 — Hillsborough County has released only $43,878, which was used for architectural services.
Not a single hammer has been raised to support the project since.
"That's glacial speed," said state Sen. Ronda Storms, a former county commissioner from Valrico who fostered the project during its application stages.
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Five years ago, plans for this space reflected the same mission held by the early Bealsville leaders: fostering individual growth through public services. They wanted it to be a full-service community center.
After it was fixed up, according to the original grant application, the Glover School would host an after school program, health screenings and senior citizen classes.
An old canning station could be converted into a Hillsborough sheriff's substation.
And the three-room clapboard building that once housed a classroom and principal's office could be restored to its original state and live again as a museum documenting local African-American history — legacies and stories that were quickly dying off with an aging population.
But most of those plans are on hold.
No one seems to know exactly why.
Valmarie Turner, head of Hillsborough County's Affordable Housing Department, which manages the federal grants, said that since she came to the department and started working with the group in 2007, most of the holdups have been related to ensuring any designs for the school comply with federal historic regulations. The school was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Turner says the project is moving forward now, with plans to send it out for bid within the next month.
But Storms says even the extra hoops required to restore a building this old shouldn't amount to this delay. She said she hasn't gotten any concrete answers.
"It's offensive," she said of the time lapse. "Perhaps the money was misappropriated."
Turner denied the suggestion, and said the earmarked dollars are ready to be spent — as soon as the plans are ready.
"It's such an awesome project," Turner said, registering her support. "We certainly want (it) to move forward."
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Meanwhile, Thomas and other leaders of Bealsville Inc. believe departmental staffing turnover has also stunted plans. Over the life of the project, leadership of the Affordable Housing Department has changed three times.
But Thomas' biggest concern now is that the original grant will pay for far less than leaders originally hoped. The county, for example, recently informed school leaders that a new septic tank is needed, an expense that promises to eat away another $7,400 for the design and permit alone.
Neither Thomas nor Turner would speculate about just how much they think the entire project will cost now, with new regulations that require more work. They'll wait and see what bidders say. But if projected costs do run more than $740,300, Thomas said, he doesn't expect the dollars to come from Bealsville Inc.
"We feel that because the delays were due to their inefficiency that they (the county) should be responsible for that," Thomas said.
Al Higginbotham, who replaced Storms on the County Commission, said the last he'd heard about the Glover School was two or three years ago. Contacted by the St. Petersburg Times, he said word that the project had been stalled was news to him: "I hadn't heard of any problems until today."
Paid for in part by funds raised from fish fries and ice cream sales, the school opened in 1932 on 10 acres of donated land and became the training ground for many local African-American leaders.
Bealsville Inc. hosts an annual banquet in the old cafeteria and auditorium. Senior citizens congregate five days a week in a newer part of the school for nutritional and social gatherings. Members of the board hold regular meetings there.
But as former students Herman Hargrett, 73, and Henry Davis, 66, walked through the campus recently, they lamented the run-down condition of the oldest part of the school.
They talked and laughed, remembering the names and faces who cemented the historic school in their memories. E.L. Bing, the no-nonsense principal who occasionally scared the bejesus out of pupils. Ida Price White and G.S. Cunningham, two longtime community activists who for so long dreamt of preserving their old school. Both died in recent years.
"I was kind of envious of the guys from out here because they seemed to be connected to where they were from," said Thomas, who grew up nearby and moved into Bealsville as an adult. "They had this — I don't want to say 'swagger,' but . . ."
"It was pride," Davis said.
The school closed in 1980 following desegregation. Years ago, the county helped the community obtain funding to replace its tin roofing. And community members have raised money to renovate rooms here and there.
But inside the oldest part of the school, the walls hint at what used to be.
Pink chalk scribbles adorn a forgotten green blackboard. Beadboard walls and wooden floors scream for restoration.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected]