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University Area group's gala looks to build 'Brand New Day'

UNIVERSITY AREA — It will be a walk down the yellow brick road when the University Area Community Development Corporation presents its fifth annual gala Sept. 23.

The event, "Brand New Day," at the University Area Community Center, will feature decorations to depict the popular Broadway show, film and television movie The Wiz.

The 6 p.m. fundraiser at 14013 N 22nd St. also will kick off the nonprofit's brick-naming campaign for 3,600 bricks and 54 tiles in the center's donor circle, said Wendy Leigh, the development corporation's chief development and marketing officer

"This is an opportunity to rebuild the community brick by brick," Leigh said.

The University Area Community Center is a 50,000-square-foot facility in the heart of a high-needs, low-income community west of the University of South Florida. It is operated by the development corporation, which provides children's activities, fitness programs, job-skills training, educational opportunities and social services.

The funds raised from the gala specifically will support the group's Harvest Hope Park on N 20th Street, just west of the main center.

When finished, the park (once the site of the Police Athletic League) will include a playground, multipurpose field, teaching kitchen, walking trail, pond for fishing and the Harvest Hope Community Garden, which is already at the location.

"Our goal is to create a positive vibrant activity center," Leigh said. "The pond is fenced off now and unkempt, but it is brimming with possibilities.

"What we are envisioning is a freshwater pond, where families can sit on the dock, catch fish, and take the fish home to cook for dinner."

The goal for this year's gala, chaired by T.J. Couch Jr., is $65,000. Last year's event raised $50,000 and "we've already topped that" from sponsorships and donations, Leigh said.

Traditionally, 250 to 300 guests attend the event, which features dinner; a fashion show; dessert bar; cigars under the stars; entertainment by Fred Johnson and youth from the community; and dancing to music provided by Ultimate Entertainment's DJ Bones.

For the first time, the gala will feature hosts, including Eugenie Bondurant from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and her husband, Paul Wilborn, Palladium Theater executive director and performer; Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004; Vincent Jackson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and Kenny Leon, who directed The Wiz Live on television, and his wife, Jennifer Thompson.

Wilborn, a University of South Florida graduate, said he lived in the area and "I saw what happened to it" as it deteriorated over the past 40 years.

He said Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who with others founded the UACDC, "really created something really viable to help the area and I am glad we have a chance to support it.

"I saw the great things they were doing in a community that really needed it."

Contact Lenora Lake at