TAMPA — Uproar over a controversial eastern Hillsborough County community center has come back to benefit some of Ybor City's aged and faded ethnic social clubs.
County commissioners Wednesday agreed to set aside $2 million for repairs and upkeep of at least three historic meeting halls: Centro Asturiano and the Cuban and Italian clubs.
Members of each of the clubs, which date back a hundred years as centers for Ybor's turn-of-last-century immigrant groups, have long lobbied elected officials for help maintaining them. How did they suddenly succeed Wednesday at a time when government everywhere is cutting back?
"The Regent," said Joe Capitano, past president of the Italian Club, later adding, "Thank God."
The Italian Club currently is going through a nearly $500,000 renovation, Capitano said, in part to replace windows of the historic building and reseal some of the interior brick work. The city of Tampa agreed to kick in about $50,000 toward the costs through tax-increment finance money, but Capitano said county commissioners repeatedly said they didn't have money to help.
Then came news that the county chipped in $2.5 million of sales taxes toward construction of the Regent, a $7 million community center that opened north of Riverview this year.
The center has come under scrutiny for some of its finer touches, such as its marble facade, interior statues and grand staircase. Backers of the project said it was built stylishly to attract weddings and banquets, but community group leaders say rental rates make it too costly for them to use.
Ybor City leaders said, hey, wait a second. They have iconic buildings used for the same purposes in desperate need of repair.
So about 125 people showed up at the commission meeting wearing red shirts that read: "Save Our Historic Buildings."
Without citing the Regent, Commissioner Ken Hagan agreed with the audience's mission. He proposed taking money from $37 million set aside for a new emergency operations center that some commissioners have deemed excessive in scope.
As a native of Hillsborough, "I have a deep appreciation for our rich Hillsborough County heritage," he said.
No specific buildings were pledged money, but Hagan specified that the program is meant for designated historic sites in Ybor City.
Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham said the proposal was likely to prompt other owners of historic buildings to seek money. He suggested, and the board approved, adding an additional $500,000 in anticipation.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner argued the need for applicants to submit a business plan and said the county must establish criteria for awarding the money and keeping track of how it is spent.
The unanimous vote, with Commissioner Les Miller absent, also directed the county staff to come up with a long-term plan for ongoing assistance at Commissioner Mark Sharpe's urging.
Separately, Commissioner Victor Crist also won approval for having the county administration come back with a plan to establish a program and money pot for historic preservation. He suggested a $2 million annual pool that could be used as matching money to attract private investment.
In other action:
Commissioners agreed to suspend a requirement that up to 1 percent of construction costs for government buildings and parks be spent on public art. They said it could no longer be justified given financial challenges.
They had previously voted to cap expenditures on public art at 1 percent of construction costs or $150,000, whichever is less. The cap had been imposed after some backlash over the aesthetics of some art pieces, such as the Lady Justice statue outside the Edgecomb Courthouse downtown.