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Center back for more than bingo, spaghetti

It's been five years and one month since Frances wrecked the party.

That would be Tropical Storm Frances, which blew through Pasco County on Labor Day weekend 2004. The 70 mph winds stripped the waterproof membrane from the top one of west Pasco's original neighborhood clubhouses — the TAT Civic Association building off Darlington Road in Holiday.

Most painfully, the civic group for TAT, actually a trio of neighborhoods known as Tahitian Homes, Aloha Gardens and Tiki Village, had just retired its debt on the building 13 years after acquiring it. The mortgage-burning party never materialized and three weeks after Frances, heavy rain from Hurricane Jeanne doomed the building's interior.

Now, nearly two years after the final insurance settlement, the clubhouse was set to reopen Saturday for its first public function — a rebirth of its traditional spaghetti dinners held the first Saturday of each month.

Visitors won't recognize the place. The mustard-colored exterior and Pepto-Bismol doors are replaced by a light blue and gray scheme to remind people of water and sand.

"We wanted it to be Florida-looking without getting into the peaches and turquoises,'' said Ellen Swenson, a civic association director.

She, her brother, Bruce Zemke, the association treasurer, building committee chairman and now kitchen manager; and Jim Turtle, the executive vice president, gave me a tour of the new digs a little more than 48 hours before the first dinner.

It's changed significantly since I peeked inside 20 months ago. Members refurbished what they could of the 7,500-square-foot-building. They salvaged the kitchen equipment, scrubbed the dining chairs, installed 121 new light bulbs in the wall-mounted bingo board and paid to restore the billiards tables in the game room. But, much of it is new: walls, lighting, ceilings, tile, countertops, dining tables, ceiling fans, and a larger lounge/library area with furnishings from estate sales, the Salvation Army thrift store and a former model home.

They shopped for bargains, but it still didn't come cheap. It is a $600,000 renovation and the association is again in debt. Hence the need for the spaghetti dinners, rentals for weddings and other functions, and the numerous fundraisers intended to keep the place solvent.

The kitchen work for Saturday's dinner began Wednesday with the preparation of the meat sauce. Actually, it began eight days ago when they had a dry run just for the members. The public dinners will draw a bigger crowd with a pre-hurricane price of $5.50 for all you can eat. They anticipated going through 60 pounds of vermicelli. The freezer held 45 quarts of Dreamsicle-flavored ice cream for desert. Turtle planned to wear a tuxedo to handle the maitre d' chores. Zemke was part of the crew of eight in the kitchen.

There is seating for 240. A good Saturday during snow bird season could bring 400 or so through the door. There are 2,266 houses in the three neighborhoods known collectively as TAT and the clubhouse had been the centerpiece. It was built in 1971, with multiple swimming pools, shuffle board courts and the seven-day-a-week activities that helped lure Northerners to the two-bedroom, one-car garage homes that transformed west Pasco into a retirement haven. Eventually, the builder shuttered the clubhouse and the civic association bought it in 1991.

But the participants didn't match the potential audience. At one point the membership list was down to 120 names. Zemke, 65, moved here in 2003 and said when he joined the civic association, at age 59, he was its youngest member.

So, it will take more than spaghetti and meat sauce to build a community, particularly in the shifting demographics of west Pasco. Luring younger adults with children will be key. A separate game area is planned for the kids. Perhaps movie nights and dances, too. And there is an area set aside for members to park their recreational vehicles. That helps attract families. There are more members now than at the time of the storms.

Turtle also envisions the clubhouse regaining its stature as a place of political influence. During the campaign season, the incumbents and hopefuls always made it to a Saturday dinner for pasta and politics and the building typically was the site of candidate forums.

With that in mind, the remodeling incorporated electrical circuitry for a counting chore much more significant than bingo and a reminder of the association's definitive civic duty.

They prewired the place to serve as a voting precinct.

Center back for more than bingo, spaghetti 10/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 9:48am]
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