TAMPA — Keke Huggins grew up across the street from the Fair Oaks Center and spent nearly every day there, playing in the playground and later taking part in center-organized activities including cheerleading and softball.
“Nowadays, they don’t have that,” said Huggins, 27, sitting on the bleachers outside the small, threadbare facility while her children, Eric Barnes Jr, 11, and Taeshod Andrews Jr., 5, played in the softball field’s patchy grass and sandy spots. “It’s been the same since I started coming here when I was three and it’s just gone down.”
Huggins isn’t alone in her take. For months, East Tampa residents and activists have come to City Hall to complain about the Fair Oaks Center.
Their beef? The recreation and activities center at 5019 N 34th St. is old, cramped and, some say, rat infested, although a recent city search-and-destroy mission yielded just one rat.
City Council members have decided to act with a down payment of up to $200,000 — with the possibility of more money to follow — pending a community meeting set for January.
Frustrations have mounted as splashy parks and recreation centers have been getting some love in Tampa in recent years. In 2018, Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park opened with a $35.5 million price tag. In September, City Council member Orlando Gudes won $1 million in city funds for a new cultural center in Al Barnes Park.
Gudes’ budget win sparked protests from some activists and residents who told City Council members that Fair Oaks had been ignored for too long. NAACP local chapter president Yvette Lewis has called for the existing center to be razed and a new one built. She was also skeptical at a recent council meeting that only one rat called Fair Oaks home.
“Fair Oaks should have been put on the front burner and taken care of,” said Bishop Michelle B. Patty at a September board meeting, adding that she also supported the funding for the proposed Al Barnes Park center.
Gudes asked the Parks and Recreation Department for a report on the history of Fair Oaks and its needs. At the Dec. 12 meeting, officials outlined the center’s history of near-misses. Although more than $300,000 in maintenance and upgrades have been completed over the last 11 years, two attempts to fund a new center in 2008 and 2011 didn’t make the final budget cut.
A recent department appraisal of the center identified plenty of potential fixes, including resurfacing the basketball courts, sprucing up the reception area and removing metal grates from the window. The cost for those and other improvements could run up to $200,000, said Brad Suder, the city’s superintendent of planning and design.
Council members, sitting as board members of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, voted to ask East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area manager Ed Johnson to organize a special meeting of residents to find out what they want for the center.
The location, date and time of the meeting are still being worked out, but city officials hope to have it in early January, said Ashley Bauman, the city’s director of marketing and communications.
Gudes said residents might want a new center — estimated to cost at least $3.6 million—or a renovation. It’s important to hear from them, he said.
He also said people in the neighborhood would benefit from parks department officials describing the timeline of budget misses.
“People need to know the facts of what happened,” he said.
Council member Bill Carlson agreed that residents should be fully consulted about any proposed changes. Carlson, who represents South Tampa, said his district has plenty of opinions of what should be done with their park facilities.
“People get upset when they put the wrong kind of window in,” said Carlson.
The council will revisit the issue at their February meeting as the redevelopment agency board.