CLEARWATER — For years, residents of southeast Clearwater have been promised a new recreation center like the big snazzy ones in other neighborhoods. But budget cuts have kept that on hold, and the city manager recommends killing the project.
Still, residents of the Morningside neighborhood haven't forgotten what was promised to them. About 60 of them reminded city officials of that Wednesday night during a meeting in the low-ceilinged basement of the aging Morningside Recreation Center, which is slated to be torn down.
The end result of the meeting: The City Council will likely vote to build a small new rec center at that location, despite the potential strain it could put on the city's budget.
"I don't like unkept promises," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.
The new center wouldn't have a large gymnasium like the North Greenwood and Ross Norton recreation complexes, which were built in 2002 and 2005.
However, most Morningside residents who listened to the city's latest proposal for their local rec center Wednesday night seemed satisfied with the plan.
About $3 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax has been set aside for this purpose. Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's director of parks and recreation, said that could build a 13,000-square-foot center, about the same size as the existing Morningside Center.
It would have a 3,600-square-foot multipurpose room similar to Ross Norton's, a 2,000-square-foot fitness room like North Greenwood's, an arts-and-crafts room and two smaller rooms.
No matter what, Morningside's swimming pool and tennis courts will stay where they are.
The current Morningside Center, which dates from the 1960s, wasn't originally designed to be a rec center and is showing its age. The city pledged to replace it when voters passed an extension of the Penny for Pinellas tax from 2000 to 2010.
A few weeks ago, City Manager Bill Horne suggested not replacing it. The city can't afford to staff it due to budget cuts, he said. The Penny pays to build public facilities like libraries and rec centers, but not to operate them.
Instead of killing the new Morningside Center at that time, the City Council kept $3 million for it on the city's Penny for Pinellas project list. Then council members came to a Morningside-Meadows Homeowners Association meeting Wednesday to hear what the neighborhood wants.
"This is not a great situation. I can tell you the entire council is agonizing over this," Hibbard told the homeowners. "We are trying to come to grips with how we can meet obligations to neighborhoods but also live within our means for the entire city."
Resident Mark Blanchard recalled the city's repeated pledges to replace the Morningside Center. "This is something that has been promised, going back three mayors," he said.
A show of hands
Officials wanted to know whether residents would prefer a new building or a neighborhood park. After the crowd engaged in a rambling discussion, John McGuire, past president of the homeowners association, called for a show of hands.
"Who wants a park?" he asked. No one responded.
"Who wants a new rec center?" Dozens of hands shot up, followed by a burst of applause.
Now it's up to the City Council to vote on whether to build a new center. Council members expect it to pass. The new building would take six months to design and a year to build.
The council would also have to find a way to run the center in an era of shrinking budgets. The current center requires 4 1/2 employees and $250,000 a year.
Keeping the center going would require cutting spending somewhere else.
A couple of people in the crowd said they'd be willing to pay more taxes to keep city services at their current level. But Clearwater officials expressed doubt that a tax increase would have community support.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.