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Residents tell Greco how to spend investment tax

At Jefferson High, people spoke of traffic lights and storm drains; the mayor spoke of a larger art museum and zoo.

In the underbelly of the Tampa Museum of Art is a tiny, windowless classroom no bigger than a large family room.

On school days, children come through to draw, paint and sculpt copies of the masterpieces they've seen upstairs. When everyone squeezes together, the staff can fit in 25 of the county's 165,000 students.

About 3 miles across town at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 22nd Street is the Belmont Heights baseball diamond. Neighborhood Little Leaguers use it often, but the field has seen better days. There's glass in the outfield, the lawn is chewed up and the cinder block dugouts are crumbling.

Both of these community assets are in bad shape and both are in dire need of a make-over. But what should come first? How will Tampa define its priorities?

That is the dominant question facing Mayor Dick Greco as he holds a series of public meetings to push a $30-million arts district that he says will revitalize downtown.

A crowd of Tampa residents descended upon Jefferson High School on Wednesday night with their priorities. The plight of the cramped arts classroom and Belmont park were not specifically mentioned, but others were: traffic lights, guardrails, storm drains.

Greco has been using these community meetings to explain his budget for the second five-year phase of Community Investment Tax revenue. Of the $55-million pot, he says he hopes to devote $30-million to a new art museum and $14-million to double the size of Lowry Park Zoo.

He emphasizes that an arts district and a zoo will not only bring jobs and dollars to downtown Tampa, but they will enrich the lives and minds of young people.

"This is really for the enlightenment and benefit of kids," Greco said. "Especially for those who would not otherwise see it."

Others, like Celestino Martinez, are not so sure. Martinez says art is wonderful, but he wonders at what price.

"Why are we spending so many millions to build a museum when we still have to . . . feed our city's poor?" Martinez asked.

But Steve LaBour, president of the Tampa Homeowners and Association of Neighborhoods, said people shouldn't pit potholes against art canvases.

"I hope we will not debate the need for supporting cultural arts against the needs of our city's neighborhoods," said LaBour, whose group has not taken an official stand on the art museum. "Both are worthy of the city's precious dollars."

Two more public meetings on the proposed budget are scheduled: Monday at the Jan Platt Library on S Manhattan Avenue; and Tuesday at the University of South Florida Energy Technology Resource Center at 3650 Spectrum Blvd., Suite 100.

Mayor's projects

The mayor's five-year plan for Community Investment Tax dollars:

Museum and Cultural Arts District Planning $30-million

Lowry Park Zoo Expansion $14-million

Fort Brooke Park II Development $2-million

"Ribbon of Green" Development $2-million

Computer and software upgrades for city employees $1-million

Improvements to phone system for city employees $1-million

Renovation of Tampa Theatre Marquee $500,000

Cuscaden Pool renovations $2-million

Hunt Center Relocation to Al Lopez Park $1-million

Yet to be determined neighborhood projects $1.5-million

Total $55,000,000