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After years of planning, a wing of the University Area Community Center Complex opened Monday. The grand opening for the center, which serves blighted areas near USF, is later in the spring.

Ten days before the opening of his $7-million brainchild, state Rep. Victor Crist presented the county with a 49-page to-do list for the new University Area Community Center Complex.

Never mind that some of the requirements were as simple as polishing the hinges on a fire extinguisher cabinet.

To the Tampa Palms Republican, who has overseen every nuance of the community center since he conceived of it years ago, nothing but the highest standard will do for what he envisions as a "guiding light" for the blighted neighborhoods that surround the University of South Florida.

A wing of the center at 14013 N 22nd St. opened quietly Monday, housing a General Educational Development class offered by the county school system. A grand opening is planned later in the spring, when the rest of the building is finished. Long after the last of Monday's students went home, Crist was on hand tirelessly answering questions about the center with an overflow of information.

It is with this same zeal and surety of mission that Crist explained away issues such as a year's worth of construction delays, a $252,000 payment overdue to the county and his prior relationship with a security firm that was hired to patrol the center. (See related story.)

None of that matters, Crist said, when you know you are in the right, and you are serving a higher purpose.

Standing in the gallery hall of the main entrance, Crist pointed to the eight pillars that circle the interior and explained how they represent stability and strength.

"This is home," he said, "for the community."

"Bigger, cleaner, nicer"

As a child, Crist says, he dreamed of a place where poor children could learn dance and experience the fine arts.

"I always wanted everyone to have the same chances."

Today he has not only realized that vision; he designed every last inch of it.

From the asymmetrical color tiles intended for "a playful effect" to the floor-length stall walls that separate the women's toilets, every room of the University Area Community Center Complex sports Crist's stamp.

Funding for the $7,768,420 center _ which sits smack in the middle of a neighborhood so transient that it sometimes answers to the nickname Suitcase City _ was brought in by Crist as well.

He gathered $2-million from the state Legislature, $2-million in federal grants, $1-million from the county schools, $768,420 from county revenues and the rest from the private sector.

All of this pays for building construction and amenities that include a theater, an art studio, a weight room, classrooms and basketball courts.

Here's how it works:

Crist formed the University Area Community Development Corp., a private, non-profit charity, to run the center for the county, which owns the building.

The county pays the development corporation an annual management fee of $245,000 for five years, an amount that will rise to $270,000 a year for the following five years. The county also pays the center's operating expenses for 20 years.

In return, the development corporation manages the facility, oversees its programs and raises money for its existence.

So far, Crist said, the center has 15 primary and secondary users (he doesn't like to call them tenants) that include the GED program, Hillsborough Community College, Head Start and the YMCA.

"It's a lot bigger, cleaner, nicer," said Ronnie Jourdain, 17, a student whose GED class moved into the new center Monday.

Some of the programs will be free, some will have modest fees and some will have fees based on a sliding scale, Crist said. All are designed with the nearby residents in mind.

The development corporation is run by chairman Crist and a 17-member board, including an elected executive committee that decides financial and business matters. Crist does not receive a salary.

The committee recently chose Charles Albrecht, formerly of Tampa Aids Network, as the center's executive director, with a salary that Crist said ranged "in the 70s" and was in keeping with Albrecht's education and experience.

Crist declined to name the exact figure or other salaries, explaining that the development corporation is private even though it operates a county-owned building. He added that he doesn't want to risk revealing a staff salary that a potential donor might find objectionable. "We can't afford to turn a donor off," he said.

Demanding but not unreasonable

Crist, a longtime civic activist and a declared candidate for the state Senate seat in District 13, had hoped to open the center in September 1998.

He blames the delay on construction glitches. The community room, for example, still does not have certain light parts. "Did you order it from China?" Crist said he asked the contractor. "Are you floating it over on a raft?"

Until his final "punch list" is finished, Crist said he is not reimbursing the county the $252,000 it paid for final construction costs and, in turn, billed Crist's University Area Community Civic Association in December. The civic association was to reimburse the county with money from its private trusts, Crist said.

The contractors for the project, Angle & Schmid, did not return calls for this story.

Project architect Steve Heiser of Harvard, Jolly, Clees, Toppe Architects in Tampa said rainy weather and "owner-requested changes" were major factors in the construction delays. Crist "is demanding," he said, "but that's not unreasonable."

Still, the delays have had a ripple effect on programs. Head Start, a potential user of the center, had planned to open a program there in December 1998, said Head Start director Donna Glausser. Instead, Glausser said, Head Start has opened five other sites since then in other areas.

Head Start is still negotiating a contract with the county for a program it hopes will open at the center within a few months.

"The area has great need," Glausser said.

Another program that hopes to begin as soon as possible is one that will teach art, including computer-assisted visual arts, to children and adults.

The program, funded by a grant obtained by the development corporation, was slowed by construction delays, said Wallace Wilson, chairman of USF's art department, which will provide the instructors. USF and the development corporation also experienced some last-minute confusion over how the program would pay for its rent.

With that issue resolved, the college is scheduling courses in the after-school hours and during the summer.

Wilson said he considers the building "impressive." He cautioned that "getting the programs to sustain themselves will be the hard part." But, he added, he looks forward to seeing the classes begin there.

"Our goal is to improve the quality of life for residents in this area, especially the kids," he said.