ST. PETERSBURG — The building at 1201 22nd St. S was more than a gym.
Children gathered after school to work on donated computers. They met with tutors and the staff served them free lunches. Boys rolled around on donated wrestling mats from Gibbs High School. Exercise equipment — gifts from nearby colleges — filled much of the space. The doors, it seemed, were always open.
Then they weren't.
For two years, the building has sat empty, not unlike many structures along the Midtown corridor known as the Deuces. The tenants couldn't pay the rent, so the St. Petersburg Housing Authority closed it.
Over the summer, a buyer came along, an institution gaining increasing familiarity in the Deuces: St. Petersburg College.
Seen as Midtown's white knight by some and an overreaching bureaucratic machine by others, the college has spent the last 4 1/2 years building its community presence in southern St. Petersburg. A $15 million, 45,000-square-foot Midtown Campus building is rising on the corner of 22nd Street and 13th Avenue S. By next fall, students will fill its classrooms and computer labs.
Purchasing the old gym next door seemed like a constructive way to invest in a resource center that extended beyond higher education, SPC president Bill Law said. But some have pushed back against the college taking over what used to be a thriving neighborhood center, even using the word "gentrification."
"I believe in colleges, but anytime you put colleges in a black neighborhood it consumes the whole neighborhood," said Jeffrey Copeland, executive director of the Pinellas County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "If we can't get our kids out of high school, how are we going to get them to college?"
He added: "You need a homegrown-ness to be there still."
Law said he has tried to address those concerns.
"What I want is to be a good part of community growth," he said. "What I don't want to do is parachute in."
This has been his mantra since he and the SPC Board of Trustees made a commitment five years ago to invest in Midtown.
Along the way, the college's extended hand has been met with hesitation and reluctance.
"When we first started, the community had no idea who we were," Law said. "People in suits saying they're going to help them. They've heard that deal before."
But through meetings with church leaders, business owners and the community organization the Deuces Live, the college has started to become part of the neighborhood.
"I don't think anyone in civic leadership says, 'Let's have less education in our community,' " Law said.
To prevent the kind of parachuting Law said he'd like to avoid, the college holds carefully orchestrated planning sessions called "collaborative labs" with SPC administrators and the public. Participants discuss challenges and strengths, setbacks and hurdles.
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Two such labs helped produce the final floor plans for SPC's new Midtown Campus. Community members addressed the need for an open gathering space and wanted a focus on local African-American history. So plans call for the lobby and the community room to have touches that reflect the neighborhood's history and culture.
Scheduled to open for classes next fall, the three-story building also will house a bookstore, two science labs, three computer labs and public access computers. A career center has been proposed as well.
The first collaborative labs worked so well, SPC trustee Deveron Gibbons said, that the college decided to host another to seek input on what to do with the gym.
With every new venture, Gibbons said, he acknowledges there will be naysayers.
"We can paint the streets with gold and somebody's going to complain about the glare," he said. "Is that going to stop progress?"
More than 50 people gathered Dec. 2 at the Enoch Davis Center to talk about the empty gym on 22nd Street S. Ministers and moms, students and teachers munched on meatballs and cheese cubes and listened to Law set the stage for the evening.
"This is not our first time with friends and neighbors from the Deuces and Midtown," he said.
Law explained that the purpose of the lab was to learn from each other. The audience included representatives from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Job Corps, the Boys and Girls Club, the Deuces Live, St. Petersburg Pregnancy Center, Chief's Creole Café, Melrose Elementary School and Gibbs High.
He said SPC's vision was to make the gym — they have begun calling it the SPC Midtown Community Outreach Center — a community extension, a mosaic.
By the end of the night, the room had identified some ideas. Breakout groups said the center should provide re-entry classes and training for those trying to get back on their feet. There should be services for dilemmas, such as paying electric bills, filling the pantry, putting shoes on children's feet. And it should be accessible, with marketing tactics that reach all generations.
The school will consider those suggestions as it continues planning for the center.
"SPC is invested," senior vice president of student services Tonjua Williams said.
"We're part of the family. We're not just the school on the corner. We want to be a part of all of it."
Contact Katie Mettler at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kemettler.