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Largo pair differs on arts center vote

Editor's note: The Times asked readers to help guide our Largo election coverage by submitting questions for the candidates in this year's race for Commission Seat 4. By far the most important issue to our readers is the cultural arts center planned for Largo Central Park. The election is March 8.

Late last year, commissioners decided voters would decide at the ballot box if the city should build a cultural arts center in Largo Central Park.

In January, they changed their minds and decided to make the decision.

Now some Largo voters think they got the shaft.

"We do not understand why Largo taxpayers were not allowed to vote on the park issue," one reader wrote to the Times. "Are we not capable of making a decision?"

Yes, they are, said City Commission candidates Jean Halvorsen and Kim Deguise. But that's where agreement ends for the two.

Deguise, a 29-year-old secretary at Blessed Sacrament School in Seminole, said voters should have had the last say.

"For a non-essential service of that magnitude, I think a referendum was in order," said the newcomer to Largo politics.

On the other hand, Halvorsen, a 63-year-old former stenographer and the incumbent in this race, said the decision was rightly placed in the hands of the commission.

"I think I was chosen to represent the people on issues like this," Halvorsen said. "There was public support (for a cultural center) out there."

Deguise said she also favors placing a cultural arts center in Largo Central Park. Had it been on the ballot, she said she would have voted for it.

But Deguise said city officials never completely explained how much the center would cost or where maintenance money would come from.

"There was never a bottom-line figure," Deguise said.

Halvorsen said the figures were there.

"We've spent a lot of time on (plans)," Halvorsen said. "Yes, we can afford a cultural arts center."

The controversial building, to be called the Largo Cultural Center, is to have a theater with 350 retractable seats, catering kitchens, a concession stand, meeting rooms, ticket offices, a control room for audiovisual presentations, dressing rooms, a loading dock and an amphitheater.

The cost: $3-million.

Commissioners say they will pay for the center with donations, sales tax revenue, grants and $600,000 that was willed to the city by a former Belleair Bluffs resident. The woman's will stipulated that the money be used for a performing arts theater in Largo Central Park.

Largo Central Park itself is under way but far from being completed. When it is finished in 10 years, the park, on the south side of East Bay Drive between Seminole Boulevard and Highland Avenue, will have hiking, biking and jogging trails, picnic areas, fountains and flower beds, a children's playground and observation towers. There already is a miniature railroad on the park site. The cost will be between $5-million and $10-million.

Right now, it appears the park also will have a cultural arts center.

But for a couple of months late last year, that wasn't the case.

The first vote on whether to grant a referendum was a close one: Three commissioners and Mayor Thomas "Thom" Feaster voted in favor. Three commissioners, including Halvorsen, voted "no."

Then in January, Feaster, who would have been on this year's election ballot except no one filed to run against him, said he had changed his mind.

"I'm not proud of rescinding my vote," Feaster said. "But I have to have peace within myself."

Feaster said he was afraid the project would fail because of "half-truths circulating about the center's construction and maintenance costs."

With Feaster defecting, the decision to build the cultural arts center was left to the commission.

Halvorsen said that's as it should be.

A commission she was part of decided in December 1988 to replace the theater that was once in the Largo Community Center with a new one in Largo Central Park. The Largo Community Center burned to the ground on Thanksgiving Day 1988.

"Once people understand, they don't have a problem with it," Halvorsen said.

Deguise said some people do have a problem with it.

"I didn't like not getting to vote on it," Deguise said.