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Clearwater's North Greenwood divided over how to honor MLK

The Martin Luther King Center at 1201 Douglas Ave. in Clearwater’s North Greenwood neighborhood closed in 2011.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2008)

The Martin Luther King Center at 1201 Douglas Ave. in Clearwater’s North Greenwood neighborhood closed in 2011.

CLEARWATER — How Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should be honored in North Greenwood, the hub of this city's African-American community, has divided two neighborhood groups.

The president and other members of the Upper Pinellas Branch of the NAACP want the city to rename the North Greenwood Aquatic and Recreation Complex for King.

"We just want to honor Dr. King, and since the city closed down the (Martin Luther King) Center, there isn't any building named for him in our community," said Alma Bridges, chapter president.

However, a group trying to raise money to reopen the shuttered MLK Center says having two buildings with the same name in the same neighborhood would be confusing and would hurt their goal to reopen the building at 1201 Douglas Ave.

"The majority of people in this community, including in the NAACP, don't support what (Bridges) wants to do," said Wade Clark, president of the Clearwater MLK Jr. Neighborhood Coalition Inc.

The NAACP branch's vice president, Sam Collie, agrees, saying that the executive committee hasn't given its okay on Bridges' plan.

Collie said he'd prefer to wait to see if the coalition can raise the money to reopen the center.

Bridges said Collie is misinformed. She said she has the support of the group's leadership.

The former MLK Center was a community touchstone from its founding in the early 1970s, hosting weddings in its banquet hall and offering youth and community programs.

But it closed in 2011 after the city moved its Juvenile Welfare Board-funded programs to the North Greenwood aquatic center and North Greenwood branch library.

The building's continuing importance to North Greenwood can be measured by looking at its windows, said Milton James, the coalition's vice president.

"It's the only abandoned building in the neighborhood that hasn't been broken into. Not a single window pane gone," James said. "The community respects it."

Before it closed, officials estimated a new roof and air-conditioning system would cost $200,000 and that annual operating costs would be around $100,000. The building is now owned by the Pinellas County School Board.

Bridges said she's skeptical that the coalition can raise sufficient money to reopen the center. She also said she doesn't see the point of replicating social outreach programs.

"There's only so many people in the area," Bridges said.

Nonsense, said James.

"When I go down the street in North Greenwood and every person is making above-average grades, not doing drugs, being respectful to parents and positive to the community, then we have just the right amount of services," James said. "Until that time there is no way we could have too many services."

That the coalition has received assistance from the Church of Scientology also counts against them, Bridges said.

"People in this community don't like that," she said.

The church has donated space at its Fort Harrison Hotel for fundraising events, James said. He said many area churches have helped raise money for their effort.

"We're not religious bigots. I'm from Mississippi, I've experienced bigotry," James said.

Clark said the coalition has raised about $30,000 so far and said they welcome help — financial or otherwise— from everyone. He hopes to open the center by October.

"We have an open-door policy. atheists, the Klan, anyone can join," Clark said.

The Church of Scientology didn't respond to a request for comment.

This isn't the first attempt to rename the North Greenwood recreation complex, located at 900 N Martin Luther King Ave., for the slain civil rights leader. Last year, the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board opted to keep the center's name the way it is.

The reason for that is a city policy, dating from 1997, to name parks, fields and recreation centers for geographic areas, not people, said Mayor George Cretekos.

Cretekos, who has met with the NAACP, opposes changing the recreation center's name. The city has honored Dr. King by naming a street after him, and the existence of another building in the same neighborhood that bears the same name would be confusing, he said.

The dispute, Cretekos said, just indicates "a lack of consensus in the African-American community."

The NAACP hasn't formally approached the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board or the City Council, Bridges said, although the organization has met with council members.

She said her chapter plans to make another effort soon. As for the old MLK Center, Bridges said it is time to focus on the future.

"We're moving forward, we're not going back. It's a waste of time," she said.

The center's mission is to move the community forward, Clark said. He envisions a "holistic" set of programs, including organic farming, to "change the mind-sets" of youth in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

"Somebody has to do something productive," Clark said.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters or mail letters to 1130 Cleveland St., Suite 100A, Clearwater, FL 33755.

Clearwater's North Greenwood divided over how to honor MLK 08/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 4:39pm]
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