Leaders of east Hillsborough's Regent navigate rocky waters

RIVERVIEW

A man stood at the community's finally realized dream, a tax-funded modern and stately marble structure that the greater Brandon area could call its own. Welcome to my little house, he said. The story spread quickly, and even those who didn't hear him say it felt miffed at the implications. How could one man or even a single group, people wondered, declare ownership of the Regent, a community building — and one constructed with nearly $7 million in public dollars?

Grudges grew. Feelings got hurt.

Soon after the center opened in January 2011, media outlets blasted headlines about uncovering irresponsible spending to build the Regent. Public officials chastised the Brandon Community Advantage Center, the volunteer group in charge of construction and operations for the events center.

The unflattering spotlight has left the Regent's board sputtering as some Brandonites still regard it with suspicion and wariness. Even as the center ramps up community offerings and arts programs, the ambitious public-private project has few willing to help it outrun the shadow of social politicking.

"There is a perception out there," said board chairman David Lemar Jr., "that there are some power struggles amongst the Brandon community.

"Whatever egos are out there, we can't change that. I'm not even going to try at this point. We're just going to continue to move forward."

But can the embattled board regain public trust and correct a controversial past?

Can this civic hub anchor the community instead of divide it?

Matters of finance

Let's start with the money.

After its rocky start, the Regent's board ranks cash flow as one of its most pressing troubles. By the end of 2011, the board spent more than it made from renting out the center's ballrooms and multipurpose room.

This year, the board hopes to break even.

So when it comes to settling a $35,000 debt owed to Hillsborough County, the board says it can only afford monthly payments of about $200.

"We intend on entering into good faith negotiations with the county," Lemar said, "to figure out what is fair to the county and what is fair to the Brandon Community Advantage Center."

He takes issue with the amount that last year's county audit labeled as questionably spent. Some of that money — a portion of the $2.5 million in community investment taxes that the county kicked in for the Regent — covered bills predating the funding agreement. Lemar, a certified public accountant, calls that a common accounting practice, not misspending.

It's not necessarily net income that holds up the Regent's finances. Kristen Kerr, the center's executive director, rates bookings as strong for private events and discounted nonprofit functions.

It's all the other costs that rose out of last year's controversies.

A disagreement over allowed expenses resulted in a monthly payment of $1,139.22 to Hillsborough Community College. That's on top of the $250,000 the board already returned to the college.

Hillsborough Community College exchanged $750,000 for ownership of the building when it opened. The Regent serves as a popular satellite campus for introductory and continuing education classes, according to HCC spokeswoman Ashley Carl.

Add to the Regent's ledger a slew of legal and accounting bills — tens of thousands of dollars that this fledging business cannot easily afford.

Worse, the board is paying the price of losing public trust.

Still, the board refuses to accept HCC's offer to assume operations.

"Whether we like it or not, it is politically charged," Lemar said.

He worries about the bureaucracy of HCC's system. After watching the college answer to the media and politicians over the Regent's woes, Lemar says the public influence over HCC could cloud the center's goals.

College officials said they weren't surprised by the board's refusal.

But the offer stands.

Scrutiny and criticism

The board, Lemar said, is done playing defense.

"As I told Commissioner (Kevin) Beckner," he said, "you know, instead of being raked over the coals, we should be receiving thank-you letters from all you guys."

Despite the criticisms, Lemar sticks with the Regent's board because he remembers driving into Tampa for his Bloomingdale High prom as a teen.

"The media stories that I've maintained are untrue and false or sensationalized have really put kind of a black eye on a facility that I think is fantastic for Brandon," Lemar said.

Working to erase its negative image, the Regent recently upped its community efforts, slashing rental prices for nonprofits and opening its doors for monthly community events and exhibits for local artists.

But board members remain skittish, unnerved by a recent visit from federal officials to examine the Regent's ability to serve as an emergency shelter.

"We're supposed to be over this," said the board's chair-elect, Antonio Amadeo.

So far, emergency management officials have asked for documents that Amadeo says the board can provide, even though he believed the paperwork had already been submitted.

Thanks to federal funds, the lower level of the Regent possesses all the necessary requirements for an emergency shelter, according to Amadeo, who is an architect. He said the board is eager to accommodate the officials' requests.

"I don't want to take any chances," he said, "because of the way we've been treated."

The continued scrutiny has taken its toll on the board.

Feeling personally lambasted, former board member Mary Boor said she vacated her post last summer in an attempt to cool attacks.

"I think we'd have a lot more accomplished if the political games hadn't started," she said. "When you're bogged down with that, it is very difficult to focus on being creative and very difficult to financially support creative opportunities."

In early February, the board held its second public meeting.

Under the tall ceilings of the ballroom, few people filled rows and rows of seats. No public officials attended, but community activists who are familiar faces at public meetings did show.

Discourse quickly disintegrated into heated discord. When criticized, board members loudly commended themselves for their volunteer efforts. In turn, activists hurled allegations from all angles, including gender discrimination and bullying.

"It appears," Amadeo later wrote in an email to fellow board members, "the accusations in this meeting had no bounds."

A month later, Lemar said he had received no emails from any of the community members about joining the board.

In search of solutions

The question still lingers whether the Regent's board can overcome its stigmas.

Former state Senate president Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said public officials betrayed the board by knocking a project they once signed off on.

"It's a little late to be critical, isn't it?" Lee said. "It's not like you're going to put this thing on a flatbed and move it to Tallahassee. It is what it is and we have to make the best of it.

"Out of this could be a wake-up call to community leaders that they need to make every effort to try to find a way to make this facility available to the broader public."

While in office, Lee secured the Regent's first allocation of state money. More recently, he sometimes informally advises the board, he said.

State Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, said she feels confident that the Regent is striving to improve. Once a member of the Brandon Community Advantage Center, she was a vocal critic of the board and often publicly urged members to increase transparency and community availability. Last fall, she drafted legislation to restructure the Regent's operating board, only to quickly withdraw it.

The Hillsborough County Commission had pledged to guide the BCAC in improving public accessibility. But it's unclear whether county commissioners remain committed to making the center successful.

"Brandon needs a facility. There's no doubt about that," said County Commissioner Sandy Murman. "Everyone is well-intentioned in what we're doing. It's kind of like, how do you find the right ingredients to make this perfect recipe for the Brandon community center? And I think that's still where we're trying to get to that spot."

Though she mentioned favoring HCC's offer to take over the Regent, she offered no solutions.

"The taxpayers have had it drilled into them that they aren't going to trust this group running it because of the misuse. And will we be able to get past that point? I couldn't tell you.

"The lion's share of the burden is on that board to make the right decisions."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Leaders of east Hillsborough's Regent navigate rocky waters 03/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 15, 2012 5:30am]

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