TAMPA — An iconic West Tampa structure that has sat dormant for years is expected to come alive next year as the Tampa Jewish Community Center prepares to turn the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory into its second campus.
A $6 million injection into a capital campaign from the state Legislature this spring has sparked pre-construction demolition, with workers removing ceiling panels and lighting fixtures and preparing the site for early events.
The Jewish Community Center & Federation hopes to raise $24 million to turn the empty building between Howard and Armenia avenues south of Interstate 275 into a beehive of activity, including a new 14,000-square-foot preschool, recreational amenities, health and wellness services and art space.
About $18 million has been raised so far, and developers are confident enough in reaching the goal that new signs are up proclaiming, “The Future Is Here.”
Several years ago, center administrators realized that what director Jack Ross called “a matter of geographical psychology” was keeping people from South Tampa from using the existing Jewish Community Center on Gunn Highway in North Tampa.
Meanwhile, proposal after proposal for development of the 73-year-old armory fizzled, and when talks to bring a Department of Veteran's Affairs center broke down, “we stepped in,” Ross said.
Late last year, the group signed a 99-year lease and option to buy with the State Armory Board for 5.7 acres of the full 10-acre National Guard site. The guard will maintain its staging area to the north of the parcel; the Jewish Community Center will transform the 83,000-square-foot main structure. Additional buildings will complement the original armory.
The site misses state Sen. Jeff Brandes' Pinellas-Hillsborough district by about 1,700 feet, but the Republican from St. Petersburg said he was happy to marshal the $6 million budget request through the Legislature.
“I think this is probably the greatest economic development facility we could have for the North Hyde Park area, and I think it's going to really transform that area,” he said. “I immediately got the vision of what they were trying to do, and I saw the impact it was going to have on the community. This seemed like a modest investment that will have huge implications down the road.”
Ross said the revival of the armory has three components.
It's an economic development project, bringing 175 full- and part-time jobs on the site. Entrepreneurs have already bought property and planned businesses in the surrounding area.
It's a community project, bringing early childhood education, senior programming, indigent family social services, crisis counseling, food banks and the arts, culture and humanities, and recreation, including an aquatic park. As a secular nonprofit institution, the center's clientele is expected to be about half non-Jewish, half Jewish.
And, of course, it's a restoration project.
“We're taking this empty and underutilized building and restoring the luster of this very rich history,” Ross said.
“People have come here on a daily basis in the last several years, and they tell us, 'I was christened here.' 'I met my wife here.' 'I attended wrestling here.' ”
More history? Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders camped on the site before proceeding to Cuba in the Spanish-American War. The armory building opened the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there. So did President John F. Kennedy, just four days before he was assassinated.
There was an appearance by a young Elvis Presley, with a photo from the concert splashed on the cover of his first album.
The building is on local, state and national registers of historic places.
Architects and designers have been respectful of that as they prepare for the transformation of the building.
In a dingy room that may have been an office with stained, worn carpet, Jonathan Moore gestured to a window that has been restored to its original condition as a sample of what could be done.
The windows featured solid steel mullions, or ribs, that had deteriorated. Moore, an architect with InVision Advisors who is managing the architects and contractors at the armory, was under direction to replicate the look.
“We took it one step further and said, 'What if we could restore this as-is?' ” he said. Workers sandblasted, sanded, filled in rusted-out sections, re-glazed and re-glassed the sample window. “This is the truest preservation method, to restore what is there,” he said.
JCC officials are now seeking a matching county historic preservation grant of $200,000 to do the same with all 160 of the structure's windows.
Ross said the pre-construction demolition project would allow the Jewish Community Center & Foundation to stage a fundraising event in the old armory before actual construction begins. Best-case scenario would be a groundbreaking in March 2015.
“This is one of the few times you encounter a project that's good for everybody,” Ross said. “From the governor to our new neighbors, we've been blessed with being accepted, and we've taken that very seriously. And that's why we're trying to build something very special.”