NEW TAMPA — In the early 70s, actress Angela Bassett was a young girl from a poor family who dreamed of being in movies.
Her mother was working three jobs to keep her in dance, voice and drama lessons. Her first boyfriend was cheering her on, teaching her how to read music while they learned dance together.
It became a passion all his own, and when he grew up to become an elected official, Victor Crist vowed to keep arts education available to kids from every background.
That passion became a reality in 2000 with the creation of the University Area Cultural Development Center, a multi-purpose facility in the 22nd St./University area. It offered the often-unstable neighborhood 50,000 square feet of classrooms, music, art and dance studios and gym areas —giving underprivileged children the chance to find their voices.
A year later, Crist founded Prodigy, a program that aims to transform the lives of youth through the arts.
"Here's proof that a child who plays music does better in math and science; a child who dances has better interpersonal skills," said Crist.
Crist's constituents, the residents of New Tampa, were upset by the location of the center; they needed it, too. But Crist believed that the University area needed it more.
"We needed to get these crime rates, that were affecting us even in New Tampa, under control," he explained.
But Crist is keeping his promise to bring New Tampa a center to call its own. The county has committed to building a facility on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard
He wants to encourage private businesses afraid of the competition to "think big."
Crist sees the New Tampa program as a way to bring more exceptional young artists to the Patel Conservatory.
The new facility on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard across from the main entrance at Hunter's Green will cover 20,000 square feet with room to grow. It will include a theater that seats 299, a box office and reception area, and multi-purpose rooms. The overall complex will house specialty shops, a lake with trails and picnic areas, high-end condos, and maybe even a Trader Joe's.
Crist hopes the new center will also provide a hub for local children who want to get involved in the arts but can't get all the way across town.
"It's a way of connecting New Tampa to Old Tampa," he said. "If the Patel Center has satellites, disenfranchised kids who can't get there get a chance."
Adam Shoemaker and Amy Roth, Hunter's Green residents with school-age children, are eager for a place close to home for the neighborhood kids to learn and play.
"We hear from friends that they would like to be more involved in cultural events, but everything is just too far away," they said. "New Tampa needs a heart."
Finally, the center will be home for the New Tampa Players, a community theatre group established in 2002 who currently operate out of the University Center.
They've performed 30 shows and worked with Prodigy students, who learn about auditions, set-building and performing; they even put on shows of their own, like "The Whiz," this coming summer.
"I am looking forward to the theater space," said Thomas Pahl, a New Tampa player since 2005. "It's very difficult to draw residents to the University area for shows. It will allow for riskier performances along with the big Broadway musicals!"
"We need to foster and grow the troupe; it's part of the face of New Tampa; uniquely ours," Crist said.
Crist hopes that the center, scheduled to break ground in 2019, could be moved up a year; he also believes that the current budget of $10 million falls short.
"We could spend $100 grand on a piano alone, for example," he said.
He plans to bring in a small non-profit group to operate and manage the building, ensuring that any fundraising money will be solely focused on programs, not facility maintenance. Self-sustainability is the goal.
Another goal is becoming a hub for international cultural activities, a nod to the diversity in New Tampa, which includes large Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish populations.
"Let's have regular festivals recognizing everyone," Crist said. "Why not put on a show of around-the-world culture and take advantage of what we have?"