SEMINOLE — Mark Ely's office looks less like that of a city official and more like a Best Buy these days, but he's not complaining.
The tablets, Mac computers and binders full of software licenses Ely spent about $75,000 of his own money on will soon make up a digital arts recreation center in the city he's worked for the last 10 years as the community development director. The center will look something like this: children and teens editing photos, drawing comics, maybe even designing video games and apps on some of what Ely considers the best technology on the market in a lab with 10 computers at the city's recreation center.
"Kids these days are digital natives," he said. "It's amazing how fast these kids take to this technology."
Ely, 55, got the idea while on a trip to Rio de Janeiro in 2013. He came across a non-governmental organization working with low-income residents to create a community tech center and thought it was something that could be implemented back home.
"If you can see all these people with limited resources trying to better their lives, there's no excuse not to give back," he said.
So began his two-year immersion into the world of digital art technology.
He searched online and found no local governments in the state that had something like it. He looked up what kind of hardware and software were available on the market. In July, he started buying the equipment, cataloging every serial number and license agreement in a binder as thick as a dictionary with the intention to donate it all to the city. He became fluent in his new suite of programs, an enriching experience for a city planner without an artistic bone in his body, he said.
Soon, he looped in Becky Gunter, the city's recreation director, to talk programming, then took their ideas to the City Commission in December.
Commissioners supported the idea, especially the fact that the equipment is not only free for the city but could bring in more revenue through paid memberships for access to the lab. Gunter said she hasn't nailed down the specifics, but memberships would most likely be open to anyone, with a lower rate for Seminole residents.
The city is planning to roll out a round of camps this summer for elementary school-age kids and students in middle and early high school with a full-blown kickoff this fall.
"We're hoping to tap into the teenagers," she said. "They love all this digital tech and social media."
Gunter also wants to bring in St. Petersburg College students from the Seminole campus down the street, which offers an associate of science in digital arts, media and interactive web design as well as several certificate programs for students interested in digital media production, design and presentation, said Barbara Hubbard, the college's interim program coordinator for humanities, fine arts and digital media.
The program's roughly 300 students have access to a computer lab with several of the programs Ely purchased, such as 3D animation software and the Adobe creative suite, so students have experience working with the tools. Hubbard and Gunter said they're in the process of deciding the best ways for college students to get involved, from class instructors to interns for the recreation department.
"I think the possibilities are endless," Hubbard said.
Ely thinks so, too, which is why he bought all the equipment in the first place. He hopes that if the project is successful in Seminole, he can take his research and ideas to other local governments to help them roll out their own versions.
"Every day, someone should be making art," he said. "That's what I envision for this."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.