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More than 600 tour old YMCA in St. Petersburg as groups try to save it

ST. PETERSBURG — Peter Belmont reminded the crowd gathered inside the old downtown YMCA building Sunday afternoon that, once upon a time, people talked about demolishing the old Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

They didn't, though, and the building was refurbished.

"Today, if you talked about the Vinoy being torn down, they'd look at you like you were crazy," said Belmont, 58, the president of St. Petersburg Preservation, one of the groups fighting to save the old YMCA building at 116 Fifth St. S from demolition.

"I hope years from now you all can say, 'I took a tour of the old YMCA when they were thinking about tearing it down,' and get a similar reaction," Belmont continued. "In order for that to happen, we need your support."

About 600 people toured the 85-year-old building Sunday afternoon during an open house organized by St. Petersburg Preservation and two other groups to try to stave off the building's demise. They toured the old basketball court — the flooring long since torn out, the nets no longer there — and peered through small holes in the floor at the old pool in the basement. They traced their fingers along the patio's colorful wall tiles — imported from Seville, Spain — and snapped photos of the fireplaces that used to warm visitors to St. Petersburg who paid a nickel a night to sleep there.

On Friday, the city's preservation council is scheduled to rule on an application for a demolition permit by the building's owner, Phil Powell. Powell, who was unavailable for comment Sunday, has had the vacant building on the market since 2006.

Local music promoter Tom Nestor was one of those in attendance Sunday. Nestor is still searching for investors for his idea of preserving the building and turning it into a music museum and concert venue. Nestor said he has a purchase agreement for $1.4 million, and he owes Powell a deposit of $20,000 by Thursday.

Nestor said he expects to make the deposit. But Powell is pursing another plan — a bank has agreed to buy the Mediterranean revival-style building and demolish it. Powell has said he would like to work with Nestor, if he can come up with the money.

No one can demolish the building without city approval, though. If the preservation council approves the demolition permit, St. Petersburg Preservation can appeal to the St. Petersburg City Council. Volunteers asked people visiting the building Sunday to sign postcards urging the City Council to preserve it.

Emily Elwyn, 41, of St. Petersburg was one of the volunteers leading tours. She explained to people the importance of preserving the old YMCA.

While the Vinoy was built for the wealthy, she said, the YMCA was built by the community, for the community. A host of local organizations raised $550,000 in the 1920s to build it, she said, and their eclectic, quirky creation is one of downtown's distinct landmarks.

As the people walked out Sunday afternoon, they passed one of the building's few newer additions — a blue and white sign, hanging from a guardrail facing Fifth Street: "FOR SALE."

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.

More than 600 tour old YMCA in St. Petersburg as groups try to save it 11/11/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 11, 2012 10:48pm]
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