ST. PETERSBURG — Since the 1920s, the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club has been a symbol of the city — first as a lure to attract wintertime visitors and more recently as a magnet that draws young and old alike to its popular "Friday night shuffle."
Now the St. Petersburg City Council is considering a proposal to spend $1.4 million to convert the clubhouse into a restaurant and the cue house into a bar, and many shuffleboard enthusiasts are reacting with dismay.
"I can't believe that they are considering" a proposal that would dramatically alter the club and limit access to the facilities, said club president Christine Page.
When Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council host tonight's budget summit from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Lake Vista Recreation Center at 1401 62nd Ave. S, they could get an earful.
Previous summits have been sparsely attended. But last week, when the council voted 7-1 to ask Foster to direct the city staff to find the funding for improvements to the shuffleboard complex in the 2012 fiscal budget, it set off a chain reaction from club supporters.
"The plan is to get as many people from the community to come to the summit" and object to the restaurant and bar proposal, said Page.
Some city officials say the club's reaction is premature.
"Friday Night Shuffle is not going away," said Jay Morgan of the city's parks and recreation department. "It's still too early in the process. We value the history of the club, and I personally don't feel that that will go away, no matter what happens."
"It has never been the city's intent to exclude or remove the club from the complex," said Clarence Scott III, city administrator of leisure and community services.
Both sides agree that the buildings could stand a few upgrades.
"Much of the capital improvements would be desirable on the property, with or without a restaurant," said Scott. "The cue building, the solarium (in the clubhouse) and the second floor of the (nearby) ballroom currently do not have air conditioning. Those things are needed."
But club leaders say the proposed improvements far exceed the needs of the facility.
"We're thrilled that the city realizes that there's a lot that needs to be done to improve the complex, but a lot of what they're talking about is for the bar and restaurant," said Page, adding that the club has operated for 87 years with no air conditioning.
Last year, the city put out a request for proposals from anyone interested in entering a three-year agreement for concessions at the complex.
After getting three responses, a city committee chose Mirror Lake Hospitality LLC, which operates the Mirror Lake Lyceum, a nearby meeting and special events facility.
That decision raised a few eyebrows because one of the partners of the LLC is Brian Wilder, a cycling buddy of council member Leslie Curran.
Wilder, a retired accountant and co-owner of the Mirror Lake Lyceum, was with Curran when she was seriously injured in August while riding through the Lakewood Estates neighborhood.
Curran scoffed at the suggestion of favoritism. "They'd be far fetched to find a time when a friend of mine gained favor in any dealing with the city," she said.
"Who wouldn't want a vibrant new restaurant, with local ties, there? It's what residents said they wanted," she said.
But Shuffleboard Club supporters aren't the only ones soured by the proposal.
Chris Kelly, vice president of the club, is part of a group organizing a bicycle co-op. The plan was to set up a place in the cue house where people could repair bicycles.
Since the city had invested millions on bike trails, infrastructure and extensions to the Pinellas Trail, a co-op made sense, said Kelly. But the city rejected that because it conflicted with plans to turn the cue house into a bar.
The Shuffleboard Club opened in 1924 with two courts and quickly gained popularity and national attention as the city marketed its sunshine, shuffleboard, lawn bowling and golf courses to winter weary Yankees. By 1948, there were five shuffleboard clubs with more than 150 courts and a combined membership of more than 10,000, according to former Mayor Rick Baker's history of the city.
Over time, as popularity faded, there were fears that the original Shuffleboard Club near Mirror Lake might close. In recent years, however, the 87-year-old club has seen a resurgence of interest from an eclectic mix of families, young professionals, college students and seniors on Friday nights.
Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8874.