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Community center effort trudges on

Proponents of a new community center here are tip-toeing toward Election Day with empty pockets, full schedules and a few homemade signs.

"We don't have the funds to campaign in a big way," said Jerry Hooker, a member of the group that managed to put a community center referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. "If it doesn't pass, whether there'll be enough blood left in this group to keep it going, I don't know."

Hooker's group, Palm Harbor Community Center Inc., gathered more than 3,000 signatures in April supporting the project but has encountered scattered opposition in developments that already have clubhouses or meeting places, namely Ozona, Crystal Beach and Highland Lakes.

If approved, the center could be built in old downtown Palm Harbor. Community leaders also are eyeing the 16.8-acre Robert Stansell property on Alt. U.S. 19 north of Nebraska Avenue as a possible site for the center.

The center's backers could have used $10,000 from the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency to launch a more extensive campaign, but decided recently to break ties with the agency board _ without taking the money, board member Steve Putnam said.

Center leaders wanted to keep a clause in the proposal eliminating the tax after 10 years, but the agency supported retaining the tax indefinitely. Hooker said he feared voters wouldn't endorse an open-ended tax increase. Agency board members felt the 10-year limit was irresponsible.

In the end, the 10-year cap stayed put and the community center broke free of the agency.

"To put a sunset of 10 years on the community center (tax) might well mean that at the end of 10 years we'd have a center that was going along reasonably well but not supporting itself and we'd be forced to close it down or have another referendum," Putnam said.

Without the agency's help, center backers are forced to run a home-spun campaign: black-and-white signs, red, white and blue fliers crafted on personal computers, and lots of old-fashioned flesh-pressing.

Group members are touring the Palm Harbor taxing district touting the new, 30,000-square-foot downtown center to the taxpayers. They hope the facility will include a 7,700-square-foot auditorium for dances and plays, a kitchen to serve catered meals and conference rooms.

"We've been out in the community speaking to civic groups," said Trent Roark, president of Palm Harbor Community Center.

Supporters also have scheduled a news conference later this month at the chamber of commerce they hope will generate more publicity and give the campaign a final boost.

They want Palm Harbor voters to realize the benefits of having a centrally located meeting place for presentations, plays and community-wide events.

"This, for people in Palm Harbor, is not going to cost very much," Hooker said. "We want this thing for all ages, all abilities. There are lots of groups in Palm Harbor who have to go out of the area for dances, meetings.

"We think this will help the quality of life here. If we get more youngsters involved, we can keep them off the streets."

But some voters aren't convinced of the center's worth.

"I would never use it," said Bob Schinkel, who lives in the 2,500-home Highland Lakes development, which has its own clubhouse and meeting facilities. "But there are a lot of people in the community with children who may need it. I imagine they'll vote for it. We'd be paying for something we have no use for. I'll either abstain or vote no."

With just over two weeks left before Election Day, center supporters plan to do all they can for the campaign. But Jeremiah Brown, another Highland Lakes resident and an undecided voter, says proponents have a lot of work ahead.

"There's not enough hard information really to make a decision," he said. "There doesn't seem to be enough information on the future costs and benefits. It hasn't been discussed much out here."

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