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Center's promise is going unfilled

When the Greater Ridgecrest Area Neighborhood Family Center opened in April 1999, it seemed to be a sign of the good things happening in that community.

Local governments that had for too long ignored the area's needs were paying attention and planning ways to help the community progress. Law enforcement had made inroads on reducing the area drug trade. A new sense of pride was spreading among residents, who fixed up their homes and began to feel secure enough to talk about their needs.

The family center, with its recreational, social and educational programs for residents, was supposed to be a part of that optimistic trend. And in the beginning, it was.

But today the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is conducting a criminal investigation at the center, and its future is clouded.

The Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board proved its worth as an agency that keeps watch on many social programs in the county when it sounded the alarm about the Greater Ridgecrest Area Neighborhood Family Center. The JWB, which gives money to the center, planned to conduct an annual review of the center this month, but launched the review early after hearing disturbing reports from suspicious residents.

A lot of money from various sources was going to the center _ its annual budget was more than $185,000 _ but it appeared that little programming was going on. And the JWB was told by center employees that they had seen their former boss, Fran Philpot-Scott, shredding financial documents. Employee time sheets were altered and bank statements were not complete, according to the JWB review.

Philpot-Scott, a longtime activist in Ridgecrest, has denied wrongdoing. She left the center early this year and was replaced as executive director by Jai Hinson. Then Hinson left in May and Philpot-Scott returned, but only for a few weeks before resigning in June.

The JWB findings are troubling. Oversight of the center, which was supposed to be done by the Greater Ridgecrest Area Board of Directors, clearly was not sufficient and needs its own review. Why hadn't anyone noticed the major decline in participants for center programs? Indeed, some of those programs appear to have existed in name only. If participation was a problem, why hadn't the center and those charged with overseeing it initiated outreach programs?

Not only is there suspicion that money was wasted or misdirected, but now the future of a center that was created to strengthen family and neighborhood ties and bring helpful programs into Ridgecrest is in doubt. Who received the benefits of this center's creation? It appears it wasn't the residents.