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Tear it down or repair it? The fate of Fair Oaks Center hotly debated

Mayor Jane Castor has committed to renovating Fair Oaks Center, but speakers at a recent standing-room-only meeting demanded a new community center.

TAMPA — In recent years, programs and attendance have dwindled at the aging, increasingly worn Fair Oaks Center in East Tampa.

But a recent community meeting at the center drew so many people that they spilled into the hallways outside the center’s meeting room.

They listened to city park officials say the building needed repairs, including new flooring, carpet and windows, a resurfacing of the outdoor basketball court and other upgrades. An overhaul estimated to cost up to $200,000.

But the center’s bones were still good, said Brad Suder, the park and recreation department’s superintendent of planning and design,

“Overall, this building is essentially in good shape,” he told the crowd.

Before Suder spoke, Mayor Jane Castor, who was at a national mayor’s conference for the Jan. 23 meeting, promised to fast-track repairs, in a brief video message in which she acknowledged that the park had fallen through the cracks in recent years.

Sprucing up Fair Oaks wasn’t what the crowd had in mind.

A long line of speakers blasted the city’s neglect of Fair Oaks, at 5019 N. 34th St., and demanded a brand-new center with state-of-the-art amenities.

“This park has been around for 80 years. It’s not on the back burner. It’s not even on the stove,” said Rochester Jacobs.

Other speakers noted that in recent years, other high-profile parks like Waterworks and Julian B. Lane near downtown had received tens of millions of dollars while Fair Oaks struggled with a leaky roof, mold and rats.

Everyone agreed that the bars over the center’s windows had to go.

“It’s a shame before God, I’ve got to come to a park with bars on the windows like a jailhouse,” said Yvette Lewis, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Watch the entire meeting here:

Suder estimated a new center at the same size of 7,385-square-feet would cost about $3.5 million.

That price tag didn’t dissuade many residents who said their part of the city — predominantly African American with high poverty rates — hadn’t seen the capital investments in parks that more affluent areas enjoyed.

Related: Fair Oaks Center in East Tampa needs repairs. But how many?

The day after the meeting, Castor’s spokeswoman Ashley Bauman confirmed that the mayor remains in favor of renovation, not a new center. The mayor recently launched a master plan to evaluate needs for all of the city’s parks. A consultant will be hired shortly to undertake the project.

“We’re currently looking at a high-level renovation and as the master plan progresses and we assess needs, we will allocate resources appropriately,” Bauman wrote in a text.

Council members Joseph Citro, Bill Carlson and Orlando Gudes attended the meeting. They’ll likely weigh in on the community’s requests when they sit as board members of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency in February.

Castor has asked the redevelopment agency, controlled by city council members, to match whatever money the city decides to spend on upgrades.

Carlson said he’s in favor of building a new center.

“I think it’s the only fair and equitable thing to do. We have to contribute what we can to right this wrong and the community is asking for a new building,” he said.

In December, council members in their roles as redevelopment agency board members committed to spending up to $200,000 to renovate Fair Oaks. But after hearing from residents at the meeting, Carlson said, that pledge needs to be increased.

Gudes, who represents the district, has advocated for a new community center to be built at Al Barnes Park, about two miles south of Fair Oaks. He has won commitments for $2.5 million in county and city money for the project in the College Hill neighborhood.

At the meeting, several residents said they didn’t want the Fair Oaks Center to take money away from the plans for Al Barnes, but Gudes said he thought both projects could be advanced. He said the city should contribute money out of its capital projects reserves and the redevelopment agency should also contribute funds.

Related: Gudes gets city commitment for Al Barnes Park

“We need to work together on this thing,” he said.

Citro, who is the chairman of the redevelopment agency, said he thinks a new center at Fair Oaks should be built and be put on a faster track than the Al Barnes center.

“At least accomplish this by the time this council is done in 2023,” Citro said.

correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect amount of money pledged to build a community center in Al Barnes Park.

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