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Historical Society faces challenge in leasing South Ward School

The Historical Society wants a long-term lease and to bring Bombers softball fans aboard. An idea to use just this building, while the rest becomes assisted living, has proved divisive.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Historical Society wants a long-term lease and to bring Bombers softball fans aboard. An idea to use just this building, while the rest becomes assisted living, has proved divisive.

CLEARWATER — As the city nears its centennial, local history buffs and an iconic sports club are teaming up in an attempt to secure their future on the site of the city's oldest school.

The cramped two-story Plumb House, a late 19th century structure, is the current home of the Clearwater Historical Society. It just isn't big enough to display documents and other bygone-era items, most of which sit in boxes, said group president Bill Wallace.

Enter the South Ward School and around 20,000 square feet of history-rich, unused space.

Closed in 2008, the elementary school buildings on S Fort Harrison Avenue carry their own historical heft. The school dated to the 1870s, and it occupied the S Fort Harrison site since the dawn of the 1900s.

Ever since the school closed, Wallace and others have eyed South Ward as an ideal space to tell the story of the city's past while preserving a key part of it.

"It presents that kind of opportunity," said Wallace, elected head of the 300-member society last month.

The multi-building site could also house a museum detailing the decades-long history of the Clearwater Bombers, a renowned fast-pitch softball team.

The Bombers' Legacy Group — about 80 members strong — backs the idea, said Wayne Dees, the group's president.

"This is a perfect opportunity for us. Where else could you get a building for what the School Board wants to lease it to us?" Dees said.

The groups are negotiating a lease with the Pinellas County school system that would give them use of the buildings for a nominal fee for decades. The details are still being worked out, said Dean Robinson, a Historical Society board member.

A cheap lease doesn't solve the financial puzzle. Neither group has much cash on hand, and rehabbing the buildings and making them ADA-compliant is likely to run well into six figures.

Robinson and former Historical Society president David Allbritton approached the city for financial help, but the discussions went nowhere. For now, the group intends to raise money on its own, perhaps opening the site in stages.

The challenge of a crowded fundraising field — both Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium are engaged in major rainmaking efforts — isn't lost on Wallace. But there is never a great time to ask for cash, he said.

"There's usually not a line of people waiting to give you money," he said.

The Historical Society board met Tuesday to mull over its options, including interest from a Tampa developer who has proposed turning the South Ward site into an assisted-living facility and turning over the oldest building, a 4,000-square-foot two-story building at the front of the property, to the group for a museum.

That idea has divided the board. Robinson and Wallace oppose it.

"We'll hardly have any space to grow in the future," Robinson said.

Wallace acknowledges that significant hurdles must be overcome to realize his dream, but he remains optimistic.

"Those are all obstacles you're going to find any time," he said.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

Historical Society faces challenge in leasing South Ward School 12/03/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 6:32pm]
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