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Community debates fate of old Gibsonton school

GIBSONTON — These old walls, covered in puckering yellow paint and dingy water spots, hold somebody's memories.

But as this padlocked building falls deeper into disrepair, officials must decide whether it's worth saving.

Some longtime residents say Gardenville School on Symms Road is a community staple, while others think the building should be torn down, allowing for better use of the land. It could be years before anyone sees a resolution.

The school was built around the 1920s at the cusp of the area's boom. During that time, the population of the Gardenville community reached a record 125, according to county historic records.

When the number of school-age kids outgrew the 4,000-square-foot schoolhouse, it became a recreation center for after-school programs and summer camps. The county parks department bought the building in the 1960s.

"It was originally the only school in the area," said Bernard Berwin, vice president of the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton. "It's just a neat old building. It seems a shame to knock it down."

But as more time passed and more people came and went, the little brick schoolhouse changed — some say not for the better.

Unseen from the outside are water spots from leaks in the roof. Mismatched floor tiles show evidence of hastily patched damage. Tufts of pink insulation hang from the ceiling.

"Some of the people who went to elementary school in that building like having it there for reminiscing," said Bob Minthorn, another member of the Gibsonton community group. "A lot of the newer folks who don't feel that warm and fuzziness think, 'Lets just be practical.' "

Minthorn thinks knocking the building down and building a new gymnasium for the kids would be a better use of resources.

"It doesn't totally have to go off into never-never land, never to be thought about again," he said. "Take a picture of the old building, build a plaque: There's the Gardenville School."

It'll cost at least $500,000 to secure the structure's exterior and probably another $200,000 for interior renovations, said county architect Dan Myers. Demolishing it and building something new wouldn't cost much more, Myers said.

The money would come from the parks department budget or through grants. Myers said he hopes the county comes up with a verdict in the next year or two.

If it were to be renovated, contractors must first secure the structure's fragile foundation. Myers isn't sure the schoolhouse could survive a big storm or hurricane.

Adjustments inside the building would include installing air conditioning, making bathrooms handicap-accessible and overhauling the building's electrical system, he said.

"I like old buildings," Myers said. "This is not a particularly well-built old building, but if people want to keep it because they have an attachment to it, certainly our intent would be to make it a real asset to the community."

Still, "it's always easier to knock something down and start from scratch," he said. "I really do not have a preference."

Old as it is, Myers said the building has not been named a county landmark. But demolition still will have to be cleared by a county historic review board.

Nobody steps foot inside the place anymore, not since the county built a new rec center beside it five years ago.

The new center has expansive windows, air conditioning and plenty of room. There's a gym, computer center, game room, meeting space and preschool play room.

Facility manager David Ramirez doesn't have to share his office with his whole staff like he did for the nearly seven years he worked in the old building. He doesn't have to collect rainwater in buckets on the floor either.

As for the demolition debate, Ramirez said he tries to stay out of it. But he's clearly happy to be free of the old building's hassles.

"There's not much left that's original — except maybe the brick outside," Ramirez said of the schoolhouse.

As he walked around the building, apologizing for the musty smell, Ramirez pointed out what was once the arts-and-crafts center and the kitchen.

"We had some good times in here," Ramirez said. He stepped over a couple of rotting floor tiles, walked out the door and locked it up.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813)661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Community debates fate of old Gibsonton school 07/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 6:00pm]

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