YBOR CITY — After outgrowing its Seminole Heights office nearly two years ago, Metro Wellness and Community Centers began looking for a new Hillsborough County location.
At the same time, the owners of an old furniture store building slated for renovation were looking for a tenant.
They eventually found each other, and now their efforts have resulted in an Ybor City revitalization project and a hub of health services with countywide reach.
Metro, a nonprofit agency that supports people with HIV or AIDS, moved 35 employees and a host of social and medical services to the old Badcock building on E Seventh Avenue in November.
BioScrip, a pharmacy that specializes in medications for AIDS, HIV and cancer patients, followed Metro's lead and moved here from South Tampa.
Now the University of South Florida is negotiating with the building's owners for first-floor space to set up a pediatric clinic. College officials are determining costs, but both sides are hopeful it will be finalized soon.
Community leaders say the complex is offering services long needed in the area.
For years, people working and living in the neighborhood have been asking for a grocery store and pharmacy, said Tom Keating, president and chief executive of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. Half of their wish has come true.
And if a USF clinic opens, the comprehensive medical services found in that building would be unique to Ybor City, Keating said.
"I think it's interesting to have a building that is actually purposed in that niche."
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Sheila Williams, who lives in North Tampa, was reading a bulletin board when she saw a flier advertising Metro's Women Empowered and Standing Tall program.
The eight-week class is for women whose significant others are incarcerated or recently released — relationships that put the women at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and domestic violence.
Williams' boyfriend was released from prison about four months ago after serving an 18-month sentence.
The program has allowed Williams to meet half a dozen women who know exactly what she is going through, and they share stories openly. Lessons about the proper way to put on a condom are intermingled with inspirational poems and discussions about toxic relationships.
Though she joined only a couple of weeks ago, Williams says she already sees a difference in herself.
"I'm starting to cope and deal with a lot of things that I wasn't able to deal with before," she said.
The class is one of many that Metro offers, aside from supporting people with HIV/AIDS. The agency also runs a bevy of substance abuse programs, as well as services for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. It serves about 3,500 people each year, not counting the thousands who receive free testing for sexually transmitted diseases or who participate in prevention programs.
On the first floor of the Ybor facility, Metro plans to open a teen center and, eventually, a medical clinic serving GLBT youth. The agency has offices in St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.
The second floor holds employee offices, meeting rooms for group or one-on-one sessions and a public-access computer area.
"We're pretty excited because there is a lot of opportunity here," said Lorraine Langlois, Metro's executive director.
BioScrip set up in a first-floor storefront. Though most of its clients have cancer or HIV/AIDS, it is open to the public and is the neighborhood's only pharmacy.
"We have a lot of local business people who have their prescriptions filled here," pharmacist manager JoAnn Padell said.
Ybor's central location in Tampa provides better accessibility for patients, Padell said. City officials have also worked with the pharmacy to designate short-term parking for clients.
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Built in 1906, the building at 1315 E Seventh Ave. initially housed a theater and a grocery store. Over the years, it became home to a tailor, a loan company and retail outlets. But it remained empty after Badcock furniture moved out in the mid '90s.
Ybor Property Group — a venture of Frank Capitano, Joseph Capitano Jr. and Alan Kahana — purchased the property for $1.7 million in 2005. The businessmen, all proponents of the neighborhood's revitalization, had grown tired of driving by the vacant building.
"It was kind of left for dead, if you will," said John Nertney, chief financial officer for Ybor Property Group. "They didn't want to just see it continue to deteriorate or not be something that Ybor could be proud of."
Finding tenants wasn't easy, especially in this economy. Early ideas to turn the building into a health club or showroom for an architecture firm fell through.
That is when the business partners hooked up with Metro Wellness and Community Centers. Langlois agreed to lease half of the building, providing the impetus for the owners to renovate the 14,000-square-foot building.
In addition to the effects of years of neglect, the structure had been damaged by fire. Ybor Property Group set out to modernize the interior while restoring the exterior to its original design, using old photos as guides.
The developers received financial incentives, including a low-interest loan, a facade grant from the city and property tax exemptions. Dennis Fernandez, Tampa's historic preservation manager, said the project has served the neighborhood well.
"They did a very nice job of reintroducing that building back to the streetscape of Ybor City," he said.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.