Monday, April 23, 2018
News Roundup

New group tries to save Tampa's historic Jackson Rooming House

TAMPA — Just a week after the last group's effort imploded, a new lineup of historic preservationists met with local officials this week to explore options for saving the historic Jackson Rooming House.

As a result, a construction fence is expected to go up around the empty building in the next week or two, courtesy of Bracken Engineering, which already has donated three years to the effort.

Former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena and property owner Willie Robinson Jr. plan to talk with bankers about taking out a loan secured by the property to cover the estimated $50,000 it would take to shore up the building.

The hope is that securing the property and stabilizing the two-story building will buy time for supporters to come up with a long-term plan to restore the Jackson House — once a way station for famous black musicians and civil rights leaders — and the money to pay for it.

"I'd say it's on life support now," Saul-Sena said, but "with a capital infusion it can rally."

After three years of talk and no progress, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Thursday the city is open to working with Robinson and his supporters, but it won't wait forever. Buckhorn's immediate concern: The building is unsafe and "on the verge of collapse."

"A firetrap," the mayor said. "I've got an obligation to protect the public."

Before anything else, Buckhorn said, the property must be made secure. And for any work to take place, someone has to buy insurance that covers the city against any claims. Because the city has declared the building unsafe, it needs that protection before it can let any repairs proceed.

"I can't be responsible for anybody getting in that building and getting hurt," Buckhorn said.

The Jackson House has been on Zack Street near the old Union Station train depot for more than a century. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and Florida's Black Heritage Trail.

No wonder: Its roster of guests reads like a Who's Who of black America in the era of segregation. Nat "King" Cole stayed there. So did James Brown, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. When he came to town, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. pulled a chair up to the kitchen table for a hot meal.

But the 24-room structure needs an estimated $1.5 million in repairs. It's unstable, there's a hole in the roof, a little asbestos and a lot of lead paint; plus a two-story, four-room and nonhistoric addition that is especially rickety. The contents would need to be removed and stored. And that's before any structural and architectural restoration could take place.

Last week, the future looked bleak. Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden, who led a recent effort to assess the prospects of saving the building, concluded that repairs would require a virtual reconstruction from the ground up. Wood rot, bad plumbing, outdated wiring, a foundation that needs work — all contributed to a job that Belden described as "cost prohibitive."

Meanwhile, Robinson faces city fines of $75 a day because inspectors deemed the building to be unsafe. As of Thursday, the property had accumulated fines of $3,075 since Sept. 19.

On Wednesday, a new group met at the Tampa office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. Hosted by Chloe Coney, a longtime redevelopment activist who is Castor's district director, the meeting included Robinson, Saul-Sena, plus representatives of Bracken Engineering, the city, the Tampa Housing Authority, the NAACP and state Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa.

In a statement Thursday, Castor's office said the Jackson House "has significant historical importance for our entire community."

"It is the only remaining structure from the era when the nearby Central Avenue thrived as Tampa's black business district," it said. "We are helping to get the group in position to obtain the resources to save this important structure."

Robinson, 65, said the meeting was productive, though the effort still faces "a lot of problems, going uphill, ahead of us." He is taking steps to establish a nonprofit group to which people could contribute to help pay for repairs. He said it's a project in keeping with efforts to honor the history of Central Avenue.

"I think I have an original piece of Central Avenue," Robinson said, one where "people walked and talked and sat on the porch and played their instruments, and I think that needs to be saved."

Without setting an exact deadline, Buckhorn emphasized that someone needs to make the property safe and secure — and soon. If that happens and the city is insured against claims, Tampa officials will work with those trying to save the building. And if there were "progress, a credible plan and real money," the city would ask the magistrate who set the code enforcement fines to waive them.

"I'm willing to work with them, as I have been from day one," he said, "but they've got to show progress."

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