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Urban League site may soon belong to city

The city is swooping in to acquire the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League's former headquarters after a deal with a church fell through.

But there's confusion on whether that deal really is dead.

The league, which disbanded this year, had planned to sell El Centro de West Tampa, a 94-year-old brick building on Howard Avenue, to the Institute for Community Development for $1-million. Without Walls International Church runs the Institute and wanted to turn the building into a community center.

Early last month, the sale was postponed after the city urged church officials to better inform the community of its plans. The closing was pushed to Dec. 15.

But last week, W. Lois Davis, the league's chairwoman, told the city the deal had fallen through.

To the city, it was yet another dead end for the Urban League, which has been trying to sell the building for years.

"They've run out of resources, and what we're saying is, now they've run out of time," City Attorney David Smith said.

The city gave the league the building in 1999 and funneled nearly $1.4-million of government grants into its restoration, which was never finished.

When the league dissolved, it owed Wachovia $1.83-million, Tampa nearly $800,000 and Hillsborough County $416,000.

Contracts ultimately give the city ownership if the league failed to restore the building and stopped using it for community service.

Because the city helped the league acquire federal grants, Tampa might have to pay them back, Smith said. But that could be avoided if Tampa finishes the restoration and turns the building into a community service center.

Acquiring the building is a way to protect the city's investment, Smith said. "This property cannot continue to languish," he said.

While the city positions itself to take control, some wonder if the deal between the church and the league is really dead.

The Rev. Randy White of Without Walls didn't return phone calls Tuesday. Davis of the league couldn't be reached.

"I honestly don't know what's going on," said Peggy Hamric, a county Real Estate Section manager. Davis told her Thursday the deal was dead, but church officials sent the county an e-mail soon after saying that it was not.

Davis later told county officials she wasn't sure what was going on, Hamric said. "There seems be confusion on everybody's part."

She couldn't speculate on the county's role in the building's future or whether its investment in El Centro would be paid back.

If the city operates an outreach center at El Centro, county budget director Eric Johnson said, the county debt might be forgiven.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

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