CLEARWATER — Shelly Leonard was allowed two minutes with Bill Clinton, and she didn't want to waste it.
Leonard, an underdog Democratic candidate for the Florida House, got to talk to the former president backstage at a political rally last week in St. Petersburg. She grabbed his hand and asked him to use his charity to save the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Clearwater, which will soon be closed because it needs up to $200,000 in repairs.
According to Leonard, Clinton was receptive to the idea and said he would make it happen. However, the Times was unable to confirm that with Clinton's offices this week.
In any case, Leonard is now working with a citizens group in Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood. They're applying for a grant from the former president's charity, the William J. Clinton Foundation, to try and save the MLK Center.
"President Clinton has shaken my hand, looked me in the eye and said, 'You'll get it,' " Leonard told the community group Wednesday night.
Leonard, 37, is challenging well-known incumbent Ed Hooper in the House District 50 race. The district includes most of Clearwater and parts of Largo and Safety Harbor.
Hooper, a Republican seeking a third term, notes that he's no stranger to North Greenwood. He got state funding to save the Willa Carson Health Resource Center, which provides medical care to low-income people in the neighborhood.
Earlier in his political career, as a Clearwater city commissioner, Hooper says he supported building the North Greenwood Library and the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex, as well as bringing reclaimed water lines and traffic calming devices to the neighborhood.
"It's nice to see that four days before the election, she's getting involved in her community," Hooper, 63, said of his opponent Friday.
MLK Center's woes
Since 1974, the MLK Center at 1201 Douglas Ave. has been an anchor for North Greenwood, the most blighted and poverty-stricken part of Clearwater. Wedding receptions and community dinners were held in its banquet hall.
Now Clearwater plans to shut down the city-owned building because it needs a new roof and air conditioning, which could cost up to $200,000. The tutoring, computer training and job skills programs housed there will move to North Greenwood's rec center and library, which are nearby.
Even though the programs will survive, some North Greenwood residents are upset by the decision. They say there will be less space in the other two buildings, and they have an emotional attachment to the MLK Center.
Leonard says a boy recently approached her and asked her to save the building while she was campaigning door-to-door in North Greenwood. That led her to approach Clinton. The ex-president's charity works in the United States and abroad on issues such as health care and economic development.
Leonard talked this week with a citizens group that meets every Wednesday night at the MLK Center. To apply for the Clinton grant, Leonard urged them to put together testimonials on the building's importance and to collect estimates on repair costs.
Currently, the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board uses the center for its tutoring and literacy programs.
City Manager Bill Horne said that if private donations pay to repair the MLK Center's roof and air conditioning, the city's course of action would depend on whether the Juvenile Welfare Board wanted to stay there or move its classes to the rec center and library.
"The building houses JWB programs," Horne said. "If the JWB came back to us and said, 'In light of the building getting a new roof and air conditioning, we would like to stay put,' we probably wouldn't oppose that. Why would we fight that?"
Still, the city and North Greenwood activists would have to grapple with some unanswered questions.
Who would pay the MLK Center's annual maintenance costs, which are around $100,000?
And what about the lease? The city-owned building sits on leased Pinellas County School Board property. That lease is scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2011, at which time the building ownership will transfer to the school district. If a community group wanted to take over the center, it would need to lease it from the district.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.