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Tampa's historic Jackson Rooming House gets a little more time

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Published Jan. 3, 2014

TAMPA — After yet another near-death experience, the historic Jackson Rooming House is getting a little more time.

Last month, Tampa officials were talking about issuing an order to demolish the ramshackle two-story building on Zack Street.

Now, with a potential buyer in the wings and details of a stabilization plan submitted to City Hall, officials are talking about an order to repair, not demolish.

"As long as they're making progress, we'll continue to work with them," Mayor Bob Buckhorn says.

The 24-room structure is on the National Register of Historic Places and Florida's Black Heritage Trail, courtesy of its long list of famous guests, from James Brown and Billie Holiday to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But it needs an estimated $1.5 million in repairs to virtually every major component, from the foundation to the roof. Buckhorn has described it as a firetrap and said it poses a risk to public safety.

Citing those concerns, the city sent Jackson House owner Willie Robinson Jr. a letter in mid November saying an order to demolish the building would be issued if he didn't take a series of steps by Nov. 30. They included fencing the property, securing liability insurance, coming up with a structural stabilization plan "appropriate for permitting" and executing an agreement to hold the city harmless for anyone getting hurt on the property.

That was more than Robinson could manage, and he said last month that he was giving up on the idea of trying to save the house.

Then he got some unexpected help. Former City Council member and preservationist Linda Saul-Sena urged the City Council to seek a 60-day reprieve. Separately, 102.5-FM's Bubba the Love Sponge Clem rallied listeners to volunteer time, money and craft skills to refurbish the house.

Since then, Robinson's lawyer, Ricardo Gilmore of Tampa, said an appraisal has been done, though he declined to discuss it, and negotiations about a possible sale are under way with Clem's charitable foundation.

"My long-term goal would be to purchase it and to restore it the way it's supposed to be done so that Bob Buckhorn can't screw with it," said Clem, an outspoken critic of the mayor, who once referred to Clem as a "complete moron" in an email that later became public. "I don't want to own it or manage it. I just want to buy it, fix it up and then return it to whomever can benefit the most from it."

A 6-foot-high chain-link fence surrounds the rooming house, courtesy of Bracken Engineering, which has donated three years of work to studying what it would take to save the house. Gilmore said city officials have asked for a fence that's a little bigger and sturdier. While Robinson doesn't have the wherewithal to buy insurance, he is willing to sign the hold-harmless agreement the city wants.

"The city's been more than accommodating and gracious considering how long the Jackson House has been in ill repair," Gilmore said.

In a letter to Gilmore in December, City Attorney Julia Mandell said the work provided for in the stabilization plan must be properly permitted and completed within 60 days of the order to repair.

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If Robinson and others don't follow through, the city can go back and issue an order to demolish the house, Mandell said.

"They seem to be moving in a positive direction, and we've said from day one we're willing to work with folks if they're legitimate and if they have the resources to get it accomplished," Buckhorn said. "We've given extensions — multiple extensions — and we will continue to as long as people are moving in the right direction. We're not going to prolong this forever.

"It's ultimately going to get down to money," Buckhorn added, "and whether they have the resources to do what they say they would like to do. They either will get the money, or not."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.