CARROLLWOOD — It started in 1996 with some conversation around a pot of coffee.
Board members and representatives of different neighborhood associations lamented the lack of a multipurpose cultural center in Carrollwood, recalled Ken Hoyt, a resident of the Village West.
No one knows for sure who came up with the idea to build a cultural center, Hoyt said, but Tom Jones, then property manager of the Plantation of Carrollwood, took the idea and ran with it. In March 2008, Jones saw that dream become reality with the unveiling of the $8 million Carrollwood Cultural Center at 4537 Lowell Road.
But staffers, volunteers and supporters will say goodbye to Jones during a public farewell party this weekend.
The man behind one of the area's most impressive community efforts is moving to Texas with his wife, Betty. The couple want to be closer to their daughter, Cindy Gibson, who is retiring from the Air Force.
"I hate to leave," said Jones, 71. "I've got some deep roots to the community. But we've sold our house, and if everything goes right, we'll be leaving about May 6."
Paul Berg, the center's director, said he and other employees couldn't let Jones go without a proper sendoff.
"It's very sad to see Tom go because he is such an integral part of the center," Berg said. "He's been an incredible person to work with because he has such an incredible passion for the organization."
In 1996, Jones was part of a community group that included Hoyt and Carrollwood Village resident John Miley, as well as several others who came and went through the years, Jones said. All agreed that the area needed a place where people could go and enjoy various forms of culture.
By 2002, Jones was helping to work out a deal for the county to buy the St. Mark's Episcopal Church building at Casey and Lowell roads and turn it into a cultural center. At the time, the deal was contingent on the church finding a new location — no small feat with Carrollwood's growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The church found its new home on Gunn Highway, concluding the sale.
In 2004, Jones served as the founding president of the Friends of the Carrollwood Cultural Center, which formed four years before the facility opened. He held the position until early this year.
Two years later, the group persuaded the county to buy the neighboring Church of God, on Casey Road just north of Lowell, for use as a Cultural Center Annex. From 2006 until renovations on the main building were completed in 2008, a number of fundraising concerts and performances for the center were held in the annex.
Building the center became a group effort, including everyone from local residents to county commissioners. Still, Hoyt said, it is hard to overestimate the effect of Jones' leadership. He helped bring together divergent views and opinions of what the center should be, Hoyt said.
"It's hard to deal with various folks on your board, to let them have their say and to form a consensus on what they needed to do," Hoyt said. "I think that's a great thing on his part."
Helen Michaelson, the center's education and outreach director, is also a flutist and one of those musicians who helped to raise money for the center through her performance. She credits Jones' drive and ambition with bringing the center to Carrollwood.
"Tom has been so supportive," Michaelson said. "I'm sure the center wouldn't be open without him."
Bob Kerns, the center's photographer, noted that Jones' involvement with the center didn't end when it was completed. He has remained a prominent figure there, often stopping by to help with various programs or just to hang out with staffers.
"A lot of us are really sorry he's going to go," Kerns said. "He's always around the center. He spends a lot of his free time there. He has a heartfelt love for the cultural center."
Sean Ledig can be reached at [email protected]