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State Rep. says she questioned controversial Riverview center months ago

TAMPA — State Rep. Rachel Burgin doesn't have a problem with the stately design of the new east Hillsborough County community building at the center of a heap of scrutiny.

As a board member of the non-profit that oversaw construction of the Regent, she says the exterior marble and columns fit with the rest of the new urbanist Winthrop community where it is located in Riverview. And those ballroom chandeliers: They're from the tasteful yet price-conscious Martha Stewart Living collection, she said.

What concerns Burgin is the lack of public access to a community center built with $7 million in public money that seems to be getting used mainly by private groups able to pay top dollar.

"It's an event center, not a community center," Burgin said. "I didn't invest my time and effort getting a building opened for people to be turned away."

Burgin sent a letter last week to board members of what is called the Brandon Community Advantage Center Inc., the nonprofit that runs the Regent and on which she served until November. It outlined concerns she said she had voiced before, from an exorbitant pricing structure for community groups to phone calls never returned.

She suggested a series of steps, from expanding the governing board to opening its meetings.

Her missive followed calls last week for an investigation into the project by Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham. He questioned tax expenditures for some of the building's design features and consultants.

An attorney for the nonprofit responded in writing Monday to commissioners, copying his letter to Burgin. More than anything, the letter emphasized that the board is working with urgency to make the building more accessible.

That includes expanding the board, holding quarterly public meetings and creating advisory panels to offer guidance on making the Regent more available — and revisiting the pricing.

"I'm not here to criticize Rep. Burgin. She makes some good points," said lawyer Marshall Rainey. "I can only plead my case that the building has only been open for four months. There's a community piece that still needs to be worked on."

Residents of Brandon have lobbied for years for a community center that enables them to hold and attend large events without having to drive to Tampa. The 30,000-square-foot building features a ballroom, a grand staircase and terrace, a marble exterior and columns and classrooms in its two stories that can double as an emergency shelter.

Money came from state and federal grants, county sales tax dollars and Hillsborough Community College, which uses the classrooms and owns the building. Brandon Community Advantage Center is responsible for the cost of upkeep on its part of the building and grounds.

Rainey said the Regent has one full-time employee, director Kristen Kerr, who is paid $60,000 annually. She has a part-time assistant. Aside from seed money from HCC before the building opened in January, their pay comes from rentals. So far this year, he estimated the building has brought in about $50,000.

The cost of construction was in keeping with expenditures on other community or cultural centers, such as those in Carrollwood and Largo. Unlike some others, it was created with the idea that it would not require ongoing operating subsidies.

As such, renting the building for special events and creating a space that would attract them was part of the business plan. Those events would help enable the nonprofit to make the building available to community groups at low or no cost.

"Without having the events come in, they can't operate the building. That's the bottom line," said Ron Pierce, a former consultant to the project. "We made it very clear to the County Commission up front that the (center) would never come back for operating dollars."

Burgin provided correspondence to and from her office that demonstrated she began raising concerns about public access and openness in July. It started with the selection of the Regent's director, when Burgin showed she met resistance to her suggestion that finalists' names and resumes be made public.

Two board members wrote that they "respectfully" disagreed, expressing concern it could jeopardize the candidates' existing jobs. Rainey wrote to say that public records requests would be honored but that he didn't think the board had to be "proactive" with the information.

Rainey said Monday he didn't think Burgin should have shared the legal advice, but said the vetting process was ultimately opened with little public interest other than news reporters.

Burgin said that experience coupled with the response to other suggestions led to her resignation from the board.

Her letter last week indicates she has orally expressed frustration since then with access to the building after it opened. It claims a Boy Scouts group got quoted $700 to use the community center for two hours on a Tuesday night. LifeCare of Brandon, a nonprofit that helps pregnant women, was quoted $3,000 for use of the building, she says.

During an interview Monday, Burgin provided names for a half-dozen quoted prices to use the building that she says were unreasonable. They included the Riverview Chamber of Commerce and Brandon Sports & Aquatic Center.

One of them, Best Buddies, a mentoring program for intellectually handicapped children, was listed by Rainey as an example of one group the Regent attempted to accommodate. The center cut its rate for the group to hold its prom by 40 percent — to $1,300.

Best Buddies went elsewhere. Its area director, Cyndie Salas, said Monday she could not recall the final price quoted, but said it didn't include tables or chairs.

In her letter to fellow board members in July regarding publicizing job candidates' names, Burgin offered a line of guidance.

"Never forgetting that this building is not our building is crucial," she wrote. "It belongs to the residents of the Greater Brandon/Riverview area and all Floridians."

State Rep. says she questioned controversial Riverview center months ago 05/16/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 4:45pm]
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