New Vinik Boys and Girls Club rises from ashes in Palm River/Clair-Mel

Published August 22 2018
Updated August 22 2018

TAMPA — A new Boys and Girls Club opened Tuesday, in time for the first days of the school year and the estimated 200 students now pouring in each day for after-school fun and education.

The dedication ceremony was all the more meaningful because the new center in Palm River/Clair-Mel had to be built twice.

The Jeff & Penny Vinik Family Club at Winston Park burned to the ground in November 2016, nine months into construction and with the drywall and wiring already in place. The cause of the fire was officially listed as undetermined; Hillsborough County Fire Rescue didn’t find enough evidence to reach a conclusion, spokesman Eric Seidel said.

The scene Tuesday afternoon was a far cry from that winter’s night 21 months ago when some 35 firefighters spent more than an hour knocking down flames visible blocks away.

In their place, dozens of children in yellow Boys and Girls Clubs t-shirts clapped and cheered along with local leaders and hundreds of well wishers as philanthropists Jeff and Penny Vinik held open a pair of giant scissors and clamped down to cut a ceremonial ribbon.

The doors opened on a 10,000-square-foot home away from home — with "many beautiful young smiles to go with it," Penny Vinik noted — in a neighborhood where more than one child out of every three lives below the poverty level.

Inside, the center features a computer lab, a teen center, a dance studio, a music mixing room, a large all-purpose room and a lunch room where counselors hand out meals every day. Outside, children will have use of a playground with jungle gyms, a full basketball court and a state-of-the-art street hockey rink.

"What a wonderful experience it was to see this place come together," said a grinning Ricky Gallon, director of the club and a local basketball legend who, in the 1970s, took Leto High School to the state semifinals and later played for the University of Louisville.

The Boys and Girls Club in West Tampa played a big part in Gallon’s young life.

"It gets right to my heart. I can’t tell you how great the Viniks and everyone involved with this have been."

The Vinik Family Club is the fifth Boys and Girls Club to open under a partnership with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. A sheriff’s deputy is present at the clubs 24 hours a day.

In 2008, when real estate prices were crashing in the Tampa Bay area, Winston Park was identified as one of several Hillsborough County recreation centers considered for closing because of budget cuts. The center — at 7605 Destin Drive, adjacent to Clair-Mel Elementary and Dowdell Middle Magnet schools — remained open through the efforts of the neighborhood and County Commissioner Les Miller.

Then in 2016, the Viniks contributed $2.5 million to transform the center through the Boys and Girls Clubs. Jeff Vinik is owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a developer of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project.

"Penny would say, ‘It has to be durable and cheerful, and durable and positive, and durable, and it needs to have a dance studio, and did I say it needs to be durable?’" Gallon recalled. "She was on it."

The Viniks were delighted with the results.

"We wanted to impact as many kids as possible," Penny Vinik said Tuesday, "to give them a place where they feel safe and they are having fun and learning something at the same time."

Said Jeff Vinik, "It’s so wonderful to hear the kids’ voices and their laughter in here today. The kids bring this place to life."

Contact Scott Purks at [email protected]