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Tampa Jewish Federation announces plan to transform part of historic Homer Hesterly Armory

TAMPA — Historic Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, where John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and professional wrestlers appeared, is about to be reborn.

At a dinner Sunday night, the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation announced it would sign a 99-year lease with an option to buy the southern half of the 10-acre site, including the approximately 75,000-square foot building, to turn it into a Jewish Community Center South Campus.

Just what will be built there, and what services will be offered, won't quickly be announced.

The organization focuses on recreation, cultural and educational programs "with a Jewish flavor," said Jack Ross, executive director of the Tampa JCC.

The structural and environmental soundness of the facility will be evaluated, and a national marketing firm will begin a needs assessment study almost immediately.

The cost of the new campus won't be known until then, and the federation will conduct a capital campaign to pay for it.

"The results will tell us what the community wants,'' Ross said.

"It's an open palette,'' said David Scher, co-chairman of the JCC South Campus Project.

The armory building, empty since 2004, is between Howard and Armenia avenues south of Interstate 275 and north of Kennedy Boulevard.

The National Guard will continue occupying the northern part of the parcel, Ross said. But splitting the property, he said, "allows the National Guard to remain and provide a component of security as well."

Ross expects to follow an entrepreneurial model for developing and maintaining the project. A gym or cafe possibly could be operated by a third party.

"We will not become indebted for generations to come,'' Ross said. "I will not allow this to become an albatross.''

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a guest at the annual dinner where the project was revealed, called it a "big jolt of energy."

"Reactivating the historic building will make it a hub for the entire community," he said.

Ross said that demographics have shifted, and there is clamoring for more services in the South Tampa area.

In 1993, the Jewish Community Center opened on a 22-acre campus on Gunn Highway, in a former Anon Anew rehabilitation center. It sold the South Tampa JCC near Memorial Hospital a year later.

Since 1995, the JCC and Tampa Jewish Federation have operated as one entity.

The project will not affect the existing Citrus Park facility and adjacent Weinberg Village, 75-bed senior assisted-living residence, Ross promised.

"Big changes are coming in the north, and the south will become a legacy and a jewel," he said.

The 1940s armory was dedicated the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Many in Tampa remember concerts at the armory by such early rockers as Buddy Holly and James Brown, and '60s icons the Doors and Pink Floyd. Elvis Presley's debut album features a shot from his 1955 performance at the armory.

President John F. Kennedy spoke there in November 1963, a mere four days before he was assassinated in Dallas.

City officials have sought developers' proposals for the armory for years.

A film studio and creative industries incubator, an ice rink and sports complex and mixed-use commercial/residential development were under consideration.

In 2007, a $98 million hotel and spa project won the selection process, then was quietly abandoned.

A subsequent proposal by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, for Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic didn't go far either.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at or (813) 226-3332.