The Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation has shown great civic spirit in its plans to remake the historic Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory. The group is moving in a collaborative way to turn the iconic landmark into a community center. The project is a model partnership between the public and private sectors that should be a blueprint for the reuse of other historic buildings.
The Jewish Community Center announced last week that it will convert the art deco-style building into multipurpose event space, with a fitness and wellness center, preschool, pool, gymnasium and meeting space. It is working with Tampa General Hospital to offer health screenings and programs, and it is exploring a variety of offerings from a theater to a professional-quality arts studio.
The center's plans would make the armory once again a crown jewel in West Tampa. Built in the late 1930s under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, the armory has a storied history. It has hosted events from appearances by President John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley to professional wrestling, weddings and school graduations. The center's programming will meet a broad public need, and having the building alive again will give West Tampa a jolt. This project could be a catalyst for business investment throughout West Tampa and could bring new buzz to the neighborhoods on the western edge of downtown.
The Jewish Community Center sketched out the plans earlier this year. But the group has solicited input from the West Tampa community, as promised, and it is keeping an ear open as it embarks on a fundraising campaign, with the goal of opening the armory by 2015. The center already offers many of the same programs at its popular 22-acre campus near Citrus Park, north of Tampa. Its programs are open to all, regardless of religion, and known for their quality. The public is well served by having the project get off the ground on such a solid foundation.
The center's approach is what the city should look for in private operators bidding to take over historic buildings. The armory, the old federal courthouse and Water Works Park all now have new visions going forward. These historic structures are public treasures, and the public has a vested stake in operators who have a proven track record and a public commitment. With the Jewish Community Center, the city also has a local player. So far, so good. Now how about finding a similar partner for the old Carnegie library?