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Park is tip of blacks' chagrin

The mayor misunderstands the depth of anger over the Rogers Park Golf Course plan, some say.

They stood on the steps outside Tampa's City Council chambers Thursday morning and demanded that Mayor Dick Greco, a man who has enjoyed strong support from blacks throughout his career, apologize for the way he spoke to them the night before.

He was condescending, the black residents said. He was disrespectful, they complained.

James Ransom, who is leading the fight to keep the city from allowing a private organization to manage Rogers Park Golf Course, said Greco showed a side of himself many did not know existed. "It was almost like he was saying, "I know what is best for you people. How could you question me?' "

Greco said he had nothing to apologize for.

"Absolutely not," Greco said after Thursday's meeting. "I don't think I was the least bit disrespectful. I just told them what was going on. I've never been disrespectful to anybody."

On Wednesday night, Greco stood before a crowd a more than 100 blacks and explained the merits of having the Tampa-Hillsborough YMCA manage the city-owned golf course and make at least $1-million in much-needed improvements. His words, however, and the way he said them, angered many who attended the meeting.

Of course, Greco has drawn anger from residents before. What 30-year veteran of politics hasn't?

But the roots of this anger go much deeper than the mayor's support of the YMCA plan.

Rogers Park, a scruffy course that has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past three years, has become a symbol, a flash point igniting pent-up anger about a litany of slights many blacks say Greco and other white politicians have subjected them to.

There was the demolition in the 1960s of Central Avenue, a once vibrant black business district. There was the initial enthusiasm in 1992 of having a former slave ship, the Whydah, docked in Tampa as a tourist attraction. There was the fight in 1991 over Gasparilla, and a once all-white krewe whose organizers were so adamantly opposed to integrating the festivities they canceled them instead.

And then there are Greco's east Tampa revitalization plans, which have struck some blacks as a heavy-handed, white-lead approach to solving problems in a heavily black part of town.

Some of those perceived slights, like Central Avenue's demise, occurred decades ago. Other wounds, like the Whydah controversy, are much more fresh. Many black residents, however, feel they have something in common: Whites met, hashed out a deal, and then laid it out for black consumption.

"Rogers Park," an information sheet distributed during Wednesday night's meeting read. "Yet Another Attack."

How did Greco, a man so politically astute no one dared challenge him as he sought re-election earlier this year, latch onto something that seems for many blacks as sweet as a lemon? Did he have any idea that the plan would dredge up the painful past of black political impotence and white hostility?

"I am very sensitive to the past," Greco said Thursday. "I was there."

Yet Greco conceded that he only recently learned that it was the YMCA that decided to part ways with Ernest Coney, an ex-YMCA branch manager. Coney enjoys as much respect among some blacks as his wife, Chloe, president of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, which helps to revitalize neighborhoods.

"I didn't know that," Greco said of Coney's tenure at the YMCA. "But what does it have to do with the golf course?"

Some black residents Wednesday night said they simply don't trust the YMCA, whose executive director, Bob Gilbertson, acknowledged that's a battle that has not been completely won.

Joe Robinson, an engineer who lost his bid for a spot on the City Council earlier this year, told council members Thursday that the city should put $2-million into the course and have the Tampa Sports Authority continue to manage it.

Any agreement between the city and the YMCA would have to be approved by the City Council, whose members have been invited to a 7 p.m. meeting at the Orange Blossom Cosmetology Association building on 34th Street on Aug. 26 to discuss the issue. So far, only Bob Buckhorn has accepted the invitation.

There is irony in the fact that some blacks decry the condition of the course but insist that its ownership and management remain the same.

But former mayor Sandy Freedman said that's an irony born of skepticism.

"They're going to be critical, even if they don't know all the details about it, because they're suspicious that somebody's trying to put something over on them," Freedman said.

Gilbertson said the idea for having the YMCA manage the course grew out of discussions with the sports authority over the YMCA's efforts to find a suitable place to expand the local Urban Junior Golf program. The YMCA, Gilbertson said, eventually approached Greco with the idea of allowing it to spruce up Rogers Park and manage it.

Robinson pointed out on Wednesday that if the city wants a private organization to manage the course, it should have an open bid process where other groups can make their own pitches. Greco, however, said there has been no bid process because it was the YMCA's idea, and it's one that makes sense.

He just can't comprehend, he said, why others don't agree. "I'm missing something," he said. "I just don't get it."

Freedman said that's because Greco is accustomed to getting powerful people together and making deals. "That's an older way of doing business," she said. "It's a lot more difficult to bring everybody in and get their input as you go along. It's not dealmaking."

Greco's skill at dealmaking, however, has led to renewed life in Ybor City and hope _ from some quarters, at least _ in east Tampa.

"I can sleep very well with what I have done," Greco said.

Still, a question persists: Why take so much abuse over $1-million in improvements to a golf course?

Greco said he simply is exploring the idea because it could be good for the city.

But that may not be the only reason.

The sports authority has considered revenue bonds as a way of getting the money to upgrade the city's two other city-owned courses, Babe Zaharias and RockyPoint. Such a bond could only work, of course, if it's backed by revenue generated by the courses.

Rogers Park, however, has lost $435,887 during the past three years. The two other courses made a combined $335,823 over the same period. Without Rogers Park as part of the equation, golf is a revenue-maker. With Rogers Park, there is no revenue to back the bonds.

Henry Saavedra, the sports authority's executive director, insists that Rogers Park has not been overlooked because it has lost money.

"Rogers Park isn't the red-headed stepchild," he said. "We have some capital improvements that are needed at all three courses."

Greco thinks those improvements can be made at Rogers Park if an agreement can be reached with the YMCA.

He was nowhere near the steps outside City Council chambers Thursday when 77-year-old Hallique Ransom approached the elevator. Her father, G.D. Rogers, is the park's namesake, and her son James had just demanded an apology from the mayor. Others were still sounding off on the plan.

"It seems," Hallique Ransom said, "like they're taking something away from us. Leave Rogers Park alone."