LARGO — For years, city leaders have been talking about razing the old community center. And with the new $10.5 million Community Center up and running, they were poised to okay its demolition.
But last week, city commissioners had second thoughts.
Over the years, the city purchased properties downtown and demolished rundown buildings with plans to market chunks of land to a developer someday. The city also relocated the center, hoping one day to redevelop the area where the old center now sits.
Now, with barren city-owned land on the north side of West Bay Drive and a row of empty storefronts on the south side, Vice Mayor Robert Murray wonders whether razing yet another building might hurt downtown businesses.
"As we continually make barren areas, we kind of make it a ghost town," Murray said at last week's commission meeting.
He and other city leaders, with urging from former Mayor Bob Jackson, entertained the possibility of preserving the center at 65 Fourth St. NW and using it to store the city's computer servers.
The servers are now on the second floor of City Hall, where they're vulnerable to storm damage. And city leaders are talking about building a new data center, with construction costs estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million.
Commissioners asked city staffers to find out whether the old center could be renovated to house the servers and, if so, what it might cost to do so. The research may take several weeks to complete, said Glenn Harwood, city facilities manager.
Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert told city leaders the old center may not be able to weather a major storm because of its design and construction.
"We had an engineering firm evaluate that building several years ago, and they advised us not to use the building during a storm because of its structural condition," Schubert said.
The interior is in pretty poor shape, he said. The city stripped the building of most of its equipment in preparation for razing it. And children drew pictures and signed their names on the walls, thinking the center would be destroyed.
Commissioners also pondered whether the old center might have historical significance. Not really, according to an assessment by Robert Delack, past president of the Largo Area Historical Society.
The original community center, known by most as the "auditorium," was built in the 1930s, Delack said. Many people had a sentimental attachment to it because it was once "the social heart of Largo," he said. It served as a gymnasium for Largo High School basketball games and was an entertainment hub, hosting dances, rock 'n' roll shows and plays.
But most of the historic part of the building was destroyed in a fire on Thanksgiving night in 1988.
"A lot of the historical significance of the Community Center was lost when it was burned," Delack said. "Most of the historic building was rebuilt and replaced."
Commissioners Curtis Holmes and Mary Gray Black were adamantly opposed to razing the center. Black, who toured the center Wednesday with Commissioner Woody Brown, said she "expected to see something disastrous" inside, but that wasn't the case.
Brown, who owns a chiropractic business on West Bay, said the issue needs to be seriously explored, but he doesn't support spending a lot of money on a study to find out.
If reusing the building is impractical, Brown said, "I think knocking it down would be much more beneficial than letting it sit there and deteriorate."
Meanwhile, Commissioner Gigi Arntzen cautiously approached the idea of moving the computer servers there.
"I would have a huge reservation about moving any of our equipment, technology, without a complete analysis of that building," Arntzen said.
Some shop owners on West Bay Drive said the old center has little impact on their business now that the Community Center has been relocated. But a couple of downtown business owners said they're not eager to see more empty lots.
"We don't need one more abandoned building," said Michael Brandt, owner of Gulf Coast Po' Boys.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.