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Morningside Recreation Center plans back on table

The Morningside Recreation Center, built more than 40 years ago, was once a restaurant and then a nightclub.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Morningside Recreation Center, built more than 40 years ago, was once a restaurant and then a nightclub.

CLEARWATER — Inside the dilapidated old Morningside Recreation Center, retirees spin pottery wheels while little girls tumble on gymnastics mats. The 1960s-era building is heavily used, but it's also outdated.

For years, the city has promised this influential southeast Clearwater neighborhood a new rec center. But budget cuts have kept that plan on hold.

Now city officials are grappling with this question once again. There's no consensus from Clearwater leaders or neighborhood residents about what to do, but they'll soon try to reach a decision.

There are a handful of options. They include:

• Build a large regional center. This used to be the plan, but not anymore. The main problem is that a 22,000- to 25,000-square-foot center would cost at least $5-million, and then the city would have to pay for extra employees to staff it. Also, many in the neighborhood don't want this.

• Renovate the center. But the city doesn't want to sink more money into the existing building.

• Demolish it. The city would get rid of the building but leave the swimming pool, parking lot and probably the basketball courts.

• Replace it. The city would go ahead and build a new neighborhood rec center, but not the large regional center that had been envisioned.

Mayor Frank Hibbard is among those who's leaning toward that last option. Lately he's been floating an idea:

"I think we need to look at a new concept, a greatly scaled-down rec center that's easy to operate," he said. "A small fitness area, some multipurpose rooms and community meeting space. And an outdoor, open-air basketball court that's covered with a roof like a lot of the schools use."

That way, the city wouldn't be paying for air conditioning like it does with the large indoor gymnasiums in places like Ross Norton Recreation Complex. Hibbard's plan would also keep Morningside's swimming pool and tennis courts intact.

However, other Clearwater officials haven't necessarily bought into the idea of a public basketball court with a canopy over it.

City Manager Bill Horne thinks an indoor gym would be preferable because of Florida's hot weather. Also, city workers might be able to maintain more control over who's coming and going at this facility in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

"It doesn't have to be a 22,000-square-foot rec center, but I think it should have an indoor gym at a minimum," Horne said.

Clearwater announced plans several years ago to build three new rec centers with its share of Penny for Pinellas sales taxes. The North Greenwood Recreation Complex opened in 2002 and the Ross Norton complex in 2005.

A new Morningside center was to follow.

But Kevin Dunbar, the city's director of parks and recreation, wonders if it makes sense to build a new complex at all if future budget cuts will make it hard for the city to staff it.

"At some point, we're going to have to look strategically at where we're going to be in five to 10 years," Dunbar said.

The mayor recently pitched his idea to the Morningside-Meadows Homeowners Association and got a positive reaction. The City Council intends to call a public meeting in the neighborhood after the holidays.

Bob Barry, president of the homeowners association, notes that the current building on Harn Boulevard is a busy place, but it was never designed to be used the way it is now.

Originally built by the developers of Morningside more than 40 years ago, the building was the Golden Horn restaurant for much of the 1960s and '70s. Later it operated as a nightclub called Coconuts, infuriating its neighbors on the surrounding residential streets. Finally, the city bought it in 1985 and turned it into a rec center.

Morningside residents have mixed feelings about what to do with the building. Many don't want a big regional complex that will draw more traffic to their neighborhood. And others don't want the current center to close because they don't want to have to travel to the nearest alternative — the Long Center about 2 miles away.

"I can't speak for the neighborhood," Barry said. "But I think most people would like to have a new rec center, possibly one that has a fitness center."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Morningside Recreation Center plans back on table 12/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 3:50pm]
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