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Proposed center garners uneasy support

Don Hurt figures he's got about as much to lose as anyone in the proposed trade-off to fund a community center in downtown Palm Harbor.

His framing business on Nebraska Avenue lies between Omaha Circle and 12th Street, the two streets that would get bumped from an ambitious street beautification program should the county opt to build the community center instead.

"It's a little bit of a bitter pill for me," said Hurt.

But Hurt stands staunchly behind the community center proposal.

"If it's a matter of getting an activity building or not, I think we need to do that," Hurt said. "The very success of the Main Street program depends on it."

That's the kind of support county officials say will be necessary for the county commission to commit to spending $350,000 for the community center. County officials plan to gauge support for the plan at a meeting Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Palm Harbor University High School cafeteria.

Although a county-funded community center might seem like an easy choice for the neighborhood, the idea has not enjoyed unanimous community support. While the Downtown Palm Harbor Main Street Association has strongly supported the community center plan, others have said the community ought to stick with the street improvement plan that has been in the works for several years.

Some officials from the financially struggling Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center nearby have opposed it as unnecessary competition for rentals for community meetings, civic events and parties. But senior center executive director Irene Rausch said Monday she told her board to back off.

"I've advised my board this is not really our issue," Rausch said. "We should not be opposing anything like that in Palm Harbor.

"Will it be competition for us? Of course," she said. "It is going to hurt us."

But the community center proposal appears to be a done deal, she said, so the senior center board might as well try to work with the Main Street board.

The Main Street board had initially lobbied the county to renovate the existing activity building next to the White Chapel. But last month, Carl Barron, the county's director of general services, told the board it would cost the same to knock the building down and build a new one.

On Monday, Barron said he has become even more convinced that renovating the existing activity building is a bad idea. When the county demolishes a connector between the White Chapel and the activity building, it will be "very disruptive" to the activity building, he said.

"It's just a problem building," Barron said. "It's going to get very, very expensive to renovate it; and you're going to end up with a building that wasn't worth it."

Two weeks ago, the Main Street board voted to support the plan for the new activity building, said Carol McNamee, president of the Main Street board.

"We feel its the best deal for the community," McNamee said.

The board thinks a community center will be a money-maker for the Main Street program, McNamee said, and help offset the salary of a full-time Main Street manager.

"It will be a property we can rent out and generate some revenue," Hurt said. "And it offers us a home."

McNamee said the association can apply for state grants for beautification of the two streets bumped from the plan.

Although the activity building issue will be discussed Wednesday, county planning director Brian Smith said the main focus will be plans for a new zoning district for the downtown area around Florida Avenue to foster an "Old Palm Harbor feel." The plan would relax things like parking and setback requirements to encourage development in the downtown. Ideally, Smith said, the community would like to see two-story construction with restaurants and retail shops on the first floor and offices on the second floor.