CLEARWATER — When the city stopped subsidizing the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and it closed in 2010, its supporters got creative.
Neighbors in the historic North Greenwood area knocked on doors for donations, held yard sales and cookouts, anything to raise the money to keep the legacy going on their own.
"Between sweat and blood and fish fries and all kinds of other things, raffles and local community groups, we were able to get it together," said Maurice Mickens.
The Clearwater MLK Jr. Neighborhood Center Coalition, formed in response to the city's threat to demolish the center that opened in 1974, raised the funds and volunteers over five years to repair the aging roof, turn on the lights and run service programs.
Now 17 months after its reopening, the all-volunteer staff is struggling to keep up with the $5,000 needed monthly for operations and are staring at $8,956 in debt. There have been days Mickens has bought toilet paper for the bathrooms with his own money, but the goal is too precious to give up now.
"The ultimate thing is to make this a go-to place, not just for the African-American community but for the country," said coalition President Muhammad Abdur-Rahim. "We're pressing on because the MLK Center is a legacy not just for us but Clearwater as a whole."
This month, neighborhood children are coming to the center to play piano and read music on donated instruments from veteran musicians who know how passion can change lives.
The nonprofit Mothers of Minors use the center's storage space to keep clothes for needy parents. A gardening program is starting to teach locals how to grow food, and a Tuesday tutoring night has helped nearly 30 students a week at no cost to families.
Kevin Dunbar, director of parks and recreation, said the city stopped operating the MLK Center in 2001 when it built the $4.8 million North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex a half-mile down the street. The city continued to subsidize two nonprofits that ran services out of the MLK Center until its last contribution of $50,000 in 2010 when the down economy prompted budget cuts.
Dunbar said many programs, like the MLK Family Center, Neighborly Senior Services and others run from North Greenwood Recreation to serve the impoverished neighborhood, eliminating the need for the MLK Center. And although Pinellas County Schools owns the land and is now leasing the building to the coalition for a $1 a year, spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said "since we are not currently running any programs out of the building, we would not contribute to its operation today."
But coalition member Milton James said until poor areas like North Greenwood have the jobs, the high achieving schools and the quality of life seen in other areas of Tampa Bay, there can be no such thing as too many services.
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"There's a lot of progress being made in this community, but until our education gap is closed, until people are not on drugs because they don't have opportunity, until that day is here, there will not be enough programs like this in North Greenwood," James said.
With no African-American history museum in north Pinellas County, Mickens said the MLK Center is filling a void in the area.
The name on the building alone is a needed presence, he said, but the coalition also has more than 1,000 artifacts from the local Civil Rights Movement sitting in storage that need to be shared.
Mickens said the coalition hopes to raise at least $600,000 to fulfill a five-year plan that includes building a memorial and cultural arts center, which would act as a museum for local Civil Rights history.
Along with the current programming, the coalition hopes to expand services to children and adults and bring back the vibrancy the center saw in its early days.
"A lot of people that grew up here went to programs here, went on to college, because of this place," Mickens said. "So many people say, 'Oh, I had my bridal shower here, I had my wedding here.'
"It's a meeting place that people miss."
At a coalition meeting Tuesday, 22 people sat around a table reviewing budget statements and making plans.
Supporters came to see what they could do.
Jeffrey Smith, assistant director of financial aid at Eckerd College, drove from his home in St. Petersburg to tell the coalition he could help students through financial aid applications and college questions.
Abdur-Rahim said reclaiming the center's past success is not unrealistic, but the urgency is clear.
"This building is not going to function on love alone," Abdur-Rahim said. "We've got a lot of love in this room, but we have to have continuous fundraising efforts and keep the donations coming in."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.