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Meeting the need for meeting spaces

Considering that as a society, we spend more and more of our leisure hours cocooned in our homes and not mixing with our neighbors, our local governments sure are intent on providing plenty of places for us to get together.

Is it a waste of money and effort?

Take a look at Palm Harbor, where the issue is stirring people up a bit right now. Pinellas County is considering whether to build a $350,000 community center in downtown Palm Harbor. The idea of a community center came up when some people objected to the county tearing down the former Palm Harbor United Methodist Church activity building. Razing it didn't sit well with some of the community's preservationists, even though the activity building has no historical value. Just because it is old doesn't mean it can't be put to good use as a community center, they reasoned.

But the county discovered that the old building had so many problems that it would be cheaper to tear it down and build a new community center. And people have rallied to that Plan B, even though it means the county will not be able to fund a long-planned and much-needed streetscaping project for a portion of downtown Palm Harbor.

The question is, does Palm Harbor need another place to meet?

Just down the road is the relatively new Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center, which has meeting rooms available for rent that go unfilled much of the time. The senior center is struggling financially and can't help but regard a new community center as competition that will make its financial position even more precarious.

Next door to the senior center, a new YMCA is planned. That building also will have spaces where people can get together. The Palm Harbor Library has a nice meeting room. And scattered around Palm Harbor are churches, schools and restaurants that provide space for groups to meet.

Just how much getting together are Palm Harbor residents planning to do?

In Clearwater, the amount of space available for meetings is mind-boggling.

City Hall has an auditorium. The main library and branch libraries have meeting rooms. So do the recreation centers scattered all over town. Ditto for the Long Center and Sailing Center.

And in downtown Clearwater is the massive Harborview Center, a would-be trade center that has become more of a community center for classes and group meetings. The city plans to maintain it for that purpose, at least for the time being.

Yet Clearwater is busily planning for meeting spaces in the new main library downtown, the new North Greenwood branch library, the new baseball stadium proposed for Drew Street and the new recreation complex on Palmetto Street.

How many ballroom dance lessons, yoga classes and civic club meetings can one town have on any given day?

Meeting spaces add considerable square footage to a building plan, and that means they add to the cost _ a cost that, in most cases, taxpayers must bear. Someone in government needs to be calculating square footage for meeting space, figuring out much of it goes empty, and deciding whether it is necessary to build more.

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