OLDSMAR — When she saw the standing room-only crowd inside City Council chambers, Brenda Gaulin, the vice chairperson for Oldsmar Cares, was surprised. But she sat down and listened to what residents had to say.
The public hearing had to do with plans for a sidewalk variance and a second entry and exit on Jefferson Avenue, part of Oldsmar Cares' new building on State Road 580. But neighbors wanted to share their concerns about having the social service organization so close to their homes.
They feared the larger building with more access would hurt the area, increasing traffic, illegal parking and littering. They spoke of lowered property values and a rumor that the new facility would welcome homeless people who might roam their streets.
Then Gaulin, a marketing executive, took the microphone and squelched the idea that an overnight shelter was planned. She also told the crowd she would review property management issues with her fellow volunteers.
"It's hard to hear that you're not a good neighbor,'' she told them.
The June 20 meeting was "tough,'' Gaulin recalled later. But along with the approval of variances and the decision not to build a second entry and exit, the meeting was a final hurdle in making the charity's new home a reality.
Construction on the new 3,000-square-foot building should begin this month, with completion expected by December. It will be located next to the current headquarters at 163 SR 580, a tiny house where the all-volunteer organization provides services to those in need five days a week.
"It's quite a project, and we've outgrown what we have,'' Gaulin said. "We have so much support from so many different people and groups — the donations of food, the clothes, even financial donations. It's just that we have nowhere else to put it all.''
The organization was started in 1997 by Sharon Patch at Oldsmar Community United Methodist Church to provide rent and utility assistance, a service it still offers. Soon after, a food pantry and "clothing closet'' were added for those in need. In 2010, after receiving a $52,000 donation from a supporter, the organization was able to incorporate as an official nonprofit. Then they moved to their current home.
Over the years, more programs have been added — dental care for Oldsmar children, legal counseling, health screenings, education grants, holiday programs and Oldsmar Works, for job seekers. Last year, Oldsmar Cares served more than 5,000 people, providing more than $75,000 in food and financial assistance.
"We give out 100,000 pounds of food a year and serve five zip codes in the area. And, we continue to grow,'' said architect David Wallace, a long-time board member and original volunteer.
Wallace, whose architectural firm is providing design services for the new building, said he understands the concerns of the Oldsmar Cares neighbors.
"But when I heard the rumor on the homeless shelter, I just thought that it was crazy. I just don't even know where the room would be for someone to sleep,'' he said. "I also know some people were concerned about property values, but I'll say this: We know that right now property values in the area are way up, much higher than they were before we came in 2010. We'll not be doing anything different (in the new building) than what we are doing now, and it will be a better building.''
Jeana Vogel, one of the property owners who brought up the homeless shelter rumor at the City Council meeting, now agrees that Oldsmar Cares is a benefit for the neighborhood.
"It was really important though that they kept what they do, all the business aspects, on the outside up at State Road 580, not in the residential area,'' she said. "I'm also happy about the clarification, that it is not going to extend into a homeless shelter. A lot of neighbors were very concerned.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.