LEALMAN — A private school has come to the rescue of the Pinellas County sheriff who has been barred from using a county facility for a youth recreation program.
But the Wellington School's offer of a place to house the program is only temporary. Once school reopens, Wellington needs its sports facilities for its own students.
In the meantime, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch wants to change a county policy that prohibits nonprofits from using county facilities. The Police Athletic League, sponsored by Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, is the nonprofit that wants to establish the program.
Changing the policy could open the way for the county's Connection Center and former Highway Department building in Lealman to become part of a permanent, comprehensive program that could help kids with schoolwork as well as provide sports for them.
The policy banning nonprofits from using county facilities is outdated, Welch said, particularly in light of the economic crunch that prevents the county from building community centers to house programs like the one Coats wants to establish in Lealman.
"This is a new day. We have to adjust to the times," Welch said Wednesday. "I think it would be smart to look at what buildings we do have."
That's especially true for the sheriff's PAL program, which uses sports as an outlet for kids who might otherwise get into trouble.
"We know there's a need here," Welch said.
County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, who is also president of the PAL board, agreed that the program would help Lealman's youth.
"Everywhere PAL goes, youth crime (decreases). It works," Brickfield said. "If you've got good kids, send them down. If you've got rotten kids, send them down, too."
The controversy over the PAL program blew up last month when Coats proposed using the former Highway Department building in the heart of Lealman at 3755 46th Ave. N to house a sports complex for PAL and for the Step Up program, a new initiative to keep Lealman's at-risk youths off the streets.
The facility seemed ideal. There are several buildings on the 2.6 acres and outside space for other activities.
The county had planned to warehouse the property and perhaps sell it until Coats made his proposal. Now the county says it has to test for contamination on the site before kids can be allowed on it.
That frustrates community activists like Ray Neri, who said the county has used that excuse before to delay acting on something the Lealman area wants. People are working on the property now, he said, and that should indicate nothing is wrong because the county should not be putting employees at risk of contamination.
Bob Gualtieri, who oversees the PAL and Step Up programs for the Sheriff's Office, said an environmental study that will take up to 120 days also frustrated him when he heard about it. His response to the county: "Okay, but the kids are not going to be on the dirt. You've got people on it now."
But presented with as much as a four-month delay, Gualtieri went looking for an alternative and found the Wellington School's Lealman campus, 5175 45th St. N. The school opened its doors to PAL for the summer, enabling the sheriff to offer a free summer sports camp to Lealman kids three days a week Tuesday through Aug. 13.
That's just a temporary fix, Gualtieri said. PAL needs a permanent place. Ideally, he said, the sheriff could take over both the Highway Department building and the Connection Center building at Lealman Park, 3875 54th Ave. N. That way, he said, the sheriff could offer an after-school program at the Connection Center that would provide, among other things, homework help. Then those kids could go down the street to the Highway Department building for the sports component.
Welch said he's going to do what he can to see the sheriff's dream come true. With any luck, he said, the environmental report will not take long and will be clean. And that will give the commission time to change the policy to let the sheriff use those facilities.
Welch said he also wants to make sure that the Connection Center remains available for the community to use for meetings and other activities, as it has been since it was built a few years ago.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.