PALM HARBOR — Nearly four years ago, after more than eight decades of helping thousands of the county's neediest residents, the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League dissolved amid crushing debt.
It lost its headquarters, the historic Centro Espanol de West Tampa building at 2306 N Howard Ave. And the county lost a venerable 84-year-old institution that pushed for the county's first black high school and hospital, urged the Tampa Police Department to hire its first black officer and gave black women scholarships to become nurses.
Tonight at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, before a crowd of 500 guests at the Pinellas County affiliate's annual gala, National Urban League president Marc Morial will unveil plans for a regional expansion in Hillsborough and other bay area counties.
"Our national president is coming in to help us celebrate 100 years of the Urban League movement and to announce to the world that we are in this expansion mode," Pinellas County Urban League president Gregory Johnson said Wednesday evening. "He and the National Urban League are standing behind it 100 percent."
The Urban League will not set up a new independent operation in Tampa; instead, it will expand the Pinellas affiliate and create a regional chapter that is inclusive of communities as far away as Sarasota, which has never had an Urban League presence.
That new regional group has not decided on a name, a home base or a leadership structure. And it has yet to begin operation.
"We're collecting information so we can do this the right way," Johnson said. "This is not a situation that when you build it, they will come. We're looking at the real needs, what does the community say they want. We want to expand according to those needs."
This isn't the first time the National Urban League has explored expansion. In March 2006, officials asked Tampa to cede some control to Pinellas, then rescinded the directive when Tampa leaders sought time to think.
The latest talks between Pinellas and the national office began in October 2008. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio was part of those discussions, Johnson said. Iorio could not be reached for comments Wednesday night. Negotiations lasted a year before the board approved the idea.
Former state Sen. Les Miller, a former Tampa-Hillsborough board member, said he wanted more details about the regional group.
"Even though the mission is the same nationally (and) even though Pinellas and Hillsborough are just a few miles apart, some of the programs that we would need in Hillsborough County might not be the same that they need in Pinellas and vice versa," he said.
"You can't have a cookie cutter approach with Hillsborough wanting the same programs that Pinellas has."
The Pinellas chapter, which has its headquarters in St. Petersburg, offers utility bill assistance, employment services, health care education and screening, GED support and summer youth activities to about 15,000 people. It employs 28 staff members and contracts with 12 others. And it reaches beyond the African-American community.
"Anyone that walks through the door that has a desire to improve their quality of life," Johnson said, "we're here to help them as much as we can."
Johnson, who has been Pinellas' president since October 2007, said it is critical that the Urban League touches all corners of the Tampa Bay area.
"I think it's an outstanding opportunity to serve the broader communities," he said. "One of the challenges that we face here is we have a series of bridges that rather than bring us together, they divide us.
"Our agenda is to bring people together (and) link education with opportunity, health care with opportunity, desire with opportunity. We're a bridge building organization in that we're making certain that those who are seldom seen or heard have the same opportunity as those who (are)."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.