Another of Tampa's fabled landmarks is poised to embark on a new beginning. This week, the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation announced it would sign a long-term lease for the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory, a historic, art deco-style building in West Tampa near downtown. The move will mark a new chapter for one of the city's most iconic properties, and it promises to bring energy and character to a resurgent neighborhood.
The announcement caps a frustrating, decadelong effort by the city, the state National Guard and local businesses to find a suitable use for a venue that for decades hosted some of the city's signature public events, from appearances by Elvis Presley and President John F. Kennedy to generations of weddings and high school graduations. The JCC said it would turn the hall into a community center to meet the growing demand for services in the South Tampa region. The JCC operates a popular, similar program on 22 acres near Citrus Park, north of Tampa.
The JCC's presence would fill a real void in the community. The group plans to spend the next year polling neighborhood residents on what services they want. But the offerings likely would replicate the educational, cultural and wellness programs the JCC now offers in the north. The group may offer everything from basketball and swimming to literacy and arts programs, and it would provide community groups with space to meet. This would be welcome in an area where the city offers few similar services, and it would relieve taxpayers from having to build new parks, libraries and community centers in this tough economic climate.
The JCC would also make a wonderful partner. The group has a long history in the region and is widely regarded for the quality programs it offers to its members, who are both Jewish and non-Jewish. The JCC would fund the capital improvements and operational costs without going into debt, and it would offer free memberships to area residents and discounts for local veterans. This civic-minded spirit is what the city should look for in any public-private partnership.
The Florida National Guard will need to ensure that the JCC respects the historical integrity of the Armory, which was built in the late 1930s under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and dedicated the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Guard deserves credit for putting reasonable lease terms on the table that could not only return a historic building to public use but bring a valuable partner to the West Tampa neighborhood. The city should welcome the arrangement and work toward its success.