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How about letting the community in on that community center?

A funny thing happened on the way to building a suburban community center on your dime.

They got the fancy light fixtures and the marble facade looking good, and the wood floor in the ballroom is lovely.

But they seem to have forgotten the "community" part.

The recently opened Regent is a fancy two-story facility on the outskirts of suburban Brandon. If you're wondering about the name, "the Regent" certainly looks nicer than "the Greater Brandon Community Center" embossed on a creamy white wedding invitation.

Paid for with federal, state and county money, plus funds from Hillsborough Community College, which has classrooms there, the $7 million facility rents out for big events. In turn, the rental fees were supposed to make it possible to give space to community groups on the cheap, or even for free.

Jokes about the posh digs aside, we're talking about a facility with a business plan to pay its own way and also serve the people who paid for it.

Everyone wins, right?

Not so much.

Four months after its opening, the Regent is your basic public relations nightmare.

Questions have been raised about the building's suitability as a hurricane shelter — which netted $1.3 million in federal funds — and about whether county tax money was used appropriately.

But most important are questions about the building's public purpose.

More specifically, whether there really is one.

A news report dubbed it the "Taj Ma-small," a poke at the marble and statues of the facility, details that, yes, should have been paid for with private donations. But in truth, it was always meant to be a rentable party place for Hillsborough's south side.

What's not okay is how a community center priced itself out of the community.

We're talking the local Riverview Chamber of Commerce, according to one public official involved in the fracas. We're talking groups from the Boy Scouts to Best Buddies, a mentoring program for intellectually handicapped kids that decided not to hold its prom there, even at the discounted price of $1,300.

The Regent's web site calls it "Greater Brandon's Complete Class Act Experience" for "high style" weddings, "grand galas" and "strolling receptions." This does not exactly shout: And you're welcome to hold your nonprofit events here, too. The ballroom rents for $4,250 on a Saturday, a smaller room for $850 on a Tuesday.

Perhaps there was a clue to just how community-minded the place would (or wouldn't) be when a board member hit resistance at the idea of making public the resumes of finalists for the director's job.

But in all the Taj Ma-small fallout comes change, or at least a promise of it.

The board of directors is (hastily) making the right noises. Directors are talking about open-to-the-public quarterly meetings, doing a better job of advertising availability to the community (that word again) and most important, scrutinizing the prices.

Creative thinking couldn't hurt, either. Pick weekdays with less demand for space and offer facilities free to nonprofits with a public purpose. Welcome your neighbors.

And generally, make clear what should have been from the start: that this high-falutin', taxpayer-funded, fancy party spot really does have room for the people who paid for it.

How about letting the community in on that community center? 05/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 1:45am]
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