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Sulphur Springs community center costs could displace civic groups

TAMPA — Fresh digs are nearly ready for three not-for-profit groups that make their home at Sulphur Springs' Mann-Wagnon Memorial Park.

But erecting a new, 4,000-square-foot community center was the easy part, with the county picking up $700,000 of the tab.

Leaders of two organizations say they can't afford to move in or pay the new, higher occupancy fees.

When move-in begins July 20, the Moses House will be absent and the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center will be worried about survival.

They are asking for a five-year deferment on costs until they are on better financial ground.

The third group, Community Stepping Stones, expects to move in without issue.

Previously, the county provided the groups rent-free use of the former buildings at Mann-Wagnon because their work had a positive effect on the East Tampa neighborhood of Sulphur Springs, which has struggled with crime and poverty. In recent years the city has demolished around 70 dilapidated structures.

The park tenants only paid utilities.

Norma Robinson, who with her husband, Joseph, runs the museum, said the utilities averaged about $1,200 a year.

But the new center comes with operational costs of $4 a square foot, covering rent, utilities, maintenance, security and grounds keeping.

The museum would pay around $6,000 a year, Moses House $3,000 and Community Stepping Stones $4,000.

For grass-roots groups operating on small budgets, that's a lot of money, leaders of the museum and Moses House said. And fundraising, they said, has been difficult since their former buildings were demolished.

"We are very grateful for the new building," Norma Robinson said. "We just need some time to get the new place established."

The county does not seem likely to approve the deferment.

"We are giving them a brand new building," said Dale Dougherty, director of Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department. "I am not interested in a group coming in for free."

Since 2006, Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center has taught locals about their community's past through outreach programs.

But it has never had a facility suitable for an operational museum with exhibits detailing the history of the spring and the neighborhood, which was once a popular vacation spot.

That spring become polluted decades ago, which helped send the neighborhood into an economic tailspin.

Through the lessons, they hope to bring more pride to the area.

"All you hear about here is the bad," Robinson said. "We want to focus on the good."

The Robinsons estimate it will cost $60,000 to build out a museum in the new center.

They think paying $6,000 a year in fees is counterproductive until they reach their goal and can afford to maintain the museum's annual operational costs.

Donations can be made at SulphurSpringsMuseum.org.

Moses House, which was founded in 1984 and teams student mentors from the University of South Florida with neighborhood children on arts and heritage projects, could possibly scrape the money together on a monthly basis, said Susan Greenbaum, a board member.

The county will not allow the group to move in until it proves financial sustainability.

"We're not trying to play big brother and keep people out," Dougherty said. "The taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for everything."

If the groups don't move in, the county will find another civic group to use the space.

Greenbaum said that would be a huge loss.

"These nonprofits have roots in the neighborhood and understand what it is like to grow up in Sulphur Springs. That is not easily replaced."

The 3 1/2-acre site along the Hills­borough River that makes up Mann-Wagnon park was deeded to the county and city by Cecile Wagnon and named for her husband, W.M. Wagnon, and brother Merton Mann.

It's where the Museum of Science & Industry got its start.

Later, the county Parks and Recreation Department administrative offices were housed there.

In 2010, the county provided use of separate buildings on the land to the three nonprofits that were already established in Sulphur Springs but struggled to maintain stable headquarters.

A few years ago the county deemed the structures unsafe because of code violations and being in a flood zone, and so agreed to pay for a new center. Another $98,000 came from the Wagnon estate.

According to emails the county shared with the Tampa Bay Times, the nonprofits were made aware of the new costs in March 2015.

But the museum's Robinson said fundraising has always been difficult for her organization.

Supporting a cause in downtrodden Sulphur Springs where outsiders seldom go isn't as sexy as doing so in high-traffic areas of the city where donor names are visible on buildings.

She said it has been harder since December when construction displaced her group from the building it used as a center.

Potential donors are weary of contributing until the new building is complete, she said.

"It's been a Catch-22," Robinson said. "We need a building to get grants but we need the grants to move into the new building."

TECO will provide a $10,000 grant to the museum, she said.

The Florida Humanities Council approved of a $6,000 grant. But it's earmarked for creating a display exploring the cultural value the spring had on the local area. That corresponds with the February arrival of a Smithsonian Museum traveling exhibit on the effect waterways have historically on communities around the world.

Moses House temporarily suspended operations in early 2015 when much of its equipment was burglarized from its old facility.

The plan was to restart programs and fundraising once the center was complete.

"We are tightly tied with USF," said board member Greenbaum, who is also an anthropology professor at USF. "Classes have student volunteers but we couldn't add that to syllabi until the building was open."

Neither of Community Stepping Stones' two buildings was in the immediate way of construction, so the organization had full use of each throughout.

Only recently was one demolished. The second will remain open until the center is ready.

Still, Belinda Cook, executive director of Community Stepping Stones — which was established in 2005 and hosts neighborhood programs focusing on the arts and sciences — said she will need new revenue sources to afford the added fees.

"We'll keep looking for ways to pay the rent by using the facility," she said. "Overall, we're grateful for this opportunity."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Sulphur Springs community center costs could displace civic groups 07/10/16 [Last modified: Sunday, July 10, 2016 9:28pm]
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