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Rogers Park golf course outcry is back

The Citizens Who Support Keeping Rogers Park Public group opposes turning over a building and golf course time to a YMCA program for disadvantaged youths. They fear creeping privatization.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR | Times

The Citizens Who Support Keeping Rogers Park Public group opposes turning over a building and golf course time to a YMCA program for disadvantaged youths. They fear creeping privatization.

TAMPA —In 1952, when blacks didn't have a golf course, black businessmen built one at Rogers Park, joined by caddies from the Palma Ceia country club.

James Ransom, grandson of the park's namesake, remembers churning ice cream and barbecuing under the park's big oaks as a child. It was a haven for the segregated and disenfranchised. And in later years, its history became the foundation on which people rallied to ensure the park would always remain inclusive.

In the late 1990s, Ransom led a successful drive to keep Rogers Park under city control after city officials tried to turn it over to the YMCA.

The fractious debate highlighted racial divisions as Ransom and others didn't want the course restricted to members of the YMCA and guests who would have to pay a private organization fees to use public space.

Nearly a decade later, Ransom said, the same issues and players have crept back into Rogers Park with little public knowledge after the Tampa Sports Authority and the YMCA quietly reached another agreement.

"Why are we here again?" Ransom asked.

Two years ago, the City Council and the Tampa Sports Authority, which runs the golf course for the city, approved an agreement with the YMCA and the First Tee organization to occupy a defunct clubhouse at the park. With $250,000 of work donated by a construction company, the nonprofit groups are ready to renovate the building into a home for the First Tee program, which teaches disadvantaged youths golf.

Henry Saavadra, executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority, called the agreement a win for everyone.

No one was using the old clubhouse since another $700,000 clubhouse opened in 2002 as part of a $3.5-million park renovation. Poor youths would learn golf for free under scholarship or a nominal fee, and the city would help children and taxpayers, who wouldn't pay for renovations.

But Ransom, who represents the G.D. Rogers family and a group called Citizens Who Support Keeping Rogers Park Public, saw the agreement as a roundabout way to cede city control.

His group hoped to turn the old clubhouse into a hall of fame or museum for African-American golfers or into a free golfing program for poor youth not run by the fee-driven YMCA, whose governing meetings aren't public.

He also worried that the program would eat up course time for the public.

Most of all, Ransom said, black residents felt stung they weren't given a voice in determining the best use of the empty building and deciding what programs should be allowed in.

Old wounds run deep and the renewed partnership of the city and YMCA made him skeptical that the city values the course's legacy or respects the fight over control in the 1990s.

"Blacks don't have a lot of edifices left in this town to protect," said Ransom, who has spoken to the mayor and City Council members, none of whom responded for this story. A YMCA spokeswoman also didn't return a message.

Saavadra took umbrage, saying the Tampa Sports Authority embraces a black golfer museum or Hall of Fame at Rogers Park.

But he said one would be better highlighted and featured in the new clubhouse.

He said kids in the First Tee program won't be given exclusive use of the course. He said the First Tee program will not turn any disadvantaged children away, giving scholarships to anyone who can't afford fees.

"Rogers Park is not and will not be privatized," he said.

Regardless, Ransom said the city needs to start over, scrap the agreement, include the community and come up with a plan everyone can openly discuss.

"The first time, they were handing over the keys. It was overtly," he said. "This time it's subterfuge."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Rogers Park golf course outcry is back 10/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 6:05pm]
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