TAMPA HEIGHTS — The triangular red-brick church at the corner of Lamar and Palm avenues has heard countless prayers for salvation since it was built in 1905. But its own fate seemed sealed when the Florida Department of Transportation bought the building in 2007 as part of a highway interchange improvement project 20 years away.
The building could have sat empty until it was demolished. Lena Young-Green thought that was an awfully long time. Twenty years? An entire generation of children would mature, a whole generation that could benefit from a neighborhood center in a place where half the population lives below the poverty level.
"Whatever time it had to sit before DOT needed it, was good enough for us to have some community use for it," Young-Green thought. "It's an old building that has sat vacant in our community, boarded up. Every time you go by, someone has figured out a way to break into the church. And DOT, constantly, has to come by and secure it."
Young-Green is president of the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, a nonprofit group that provides after-school services, including mentoring, tutoring, computer training, health education and field trips for children between ages 6 and 12.
The organization has a staff of three and an annual budget of $150,000 from grants and private donors, including Bank of America. It works out of the small Make a Difference Center, which includes a kitchen, two classrooms, an office and a main space, within the Mobley Park Apartment Homes at 401 E Seventh Ave. About 50 kids, most qualifying for free or reduced lunches, attend the group's programs.
The association would like to expand to help teens, which it does sporadically, but it doesn't have the space.
Enter the church.
"We need a youth center and a community center," Young-Green said. "That was the effort that drove us to start talking to DOT to get that church to serve that purpose."
Young-Green asked DOT if her organization could use the church until the state agency needed the property for expansion. She began getting commitments from companies and organizations that pledged to donate more than $500,000 in money, design work, construction and labor toward renovating the 9,055-square-foot building. DOT drew up a contract leasing the building to the city, which would sublease the church to the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association until the state took back the property.
Known as the Ultimate Downtown Interchange, the highway project is most likely two decades away because of the costs associated with interstate reconstruction, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.
"I think the most sustainable thing you can do is to reuse an old building," said Linda Saul-Sena, a former City Council member now running for Hillsborough County Commission, who pushed for the project during her time with the city. "And what can be better than a neighborhood center?"
The junior civic association has been successful in raising money and pledges. About all that remains before the 22-to 24-week renovation project starts is the signing of contracts by the DOT and the city, the cost of 10 air conditioning units, and pest and termite tenting of the building — a gap that's about $75,000.
The plan is to use the church, which will be called the Tampa Heights Youth Development and Community Center, as a base for neighborhood groups and programs for teens. The junior civic association would continue working with children at the Make a Difference center.
Young-Green said she knows that she is investing donated money and time in a building that, right now, is slated to be torn down.
"In the lease is the understanding that when it gets to the point where DOT needs the property, we understand that the church will need to be moved or torn down," she said. "But we hope for a miracle and maybe the church will be moved."
Or maybe in 20 years, high speed or light rail might make future highway widening unnecessary, Young-Green pointed out.
Regardless, 20 years is a long time in the lives of both the building and the children.
"If it only helps us redirect and guide and develop our (current) youth in the community, that's a whole generation," she said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.