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In Tampa, a 15-year fight nears the finish...at an old skating rink

The Skills Center Collaborative plans to help East Tampa young people obtain job skills, play sports and train for a successful adulthood inside a 55,000-square-foot former skating rink.
Celeste Roberts, co-founder of the Skills Center Collaborative, announces Tuesday that a 55,000-square-foot former skating rink in Belmont Heights will become a youth services center in fall 2022.
Celeste Roberts, co-founder of the Skills Center Collaborative, announces Tuesday that a 55,000-square-foot former skating rink in Belmont Heights will become a youth services center in fall 2022. [ Charlie Frago ]
Published Nov. 30, 2021
Updated Nov. 30, 2021

TAMPA — For Celeste Roberts, the journey to bring activities that prepare young people for success started nearly 15 years ago.

On Tuesday, that journey hit a milestone before a large crowd, including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and U.S. Rep Kathy Castor. Roberts announced a coalition of community groups next year would open a 55,000-square-foot facility in an old skating rink, shuttered for decades, at 5207 N 22nd St. in the Belmont Heights neighborhood.

The Skills Center Collaborative, a coalition of five Black-led non-profits, will offer classes, tutoring and workforce and skills training for middle-school aged children to young adults, Roberts said. A demonstration kitchen, three gyms, e-sports and co-working and event space is also part of the plan.

The project is expected to create 180 jobs, serve 3,500 young people and produce an estimated $25 million economic impact over the next five years, Roberts said.

“This will be a place where systemic challenges facing our youth will be addressed,” Roberts,, the Skills Center CEO, said at a news conference at the future Skills Center site.

It was a dream that Roberts has had since 2007 when she began efforts to address racial barriers, inequalities and health disparities.

The project will get about $1.5 million in city and Hillsborough County financial support and private donors have pledged millions more, including the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, who called Tampa home during part of the pandemic.

Gwen Myers, a Hillsborough County Commissioner, said it was good to see a spot in her district that had sat idle for so long become so useful. The center will help East Tampa youth and shows the community’s cohesion.

“It takes a village? The village is here,” Myers said, noting that fellow County Commissioner Ken Hagan was instrumental in helping the process along.

Mayor Jane Castor said Robert’s persistence was obvious to anyone who came into contact with her vision. “My hat’s off to you, Celeste,” Castor said. “You don’t understand the word ‘no.’”

Thunderbug, the Tampa Bay Lightning mascot, made the rounds of a groundbreaking for a youth empowerment center in Belmont Heights on Tuesday.
Thunderbug, the Tampa Bay Lightning mascot, made the rounds of a groundbreaking for a youth empowerment center in Belmont Heights on Tuesday. [ Charlie Frago ]

City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes said the property has always been a youth mecca. He said he remembers how the former skating rink used to be the spot for young people. He made sure he didn’t get in trouble during the week so he could go.

“You wanted to be there on Sunday night,” Gudes said.

The participating non-profits are Computer Mentors, which offers IT training and prepares students for tech careers; Girls Empowered Mentally for Success, a group devoted to successful transitions to womanhood; Men of Vision, a mentoring and professional development program for young men; the Skill Center, a holistic sports program and the CDC of Tampa, which provides programming in workforce development, housing counseling, financially capability and youth success.