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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Supporters of St. Pete YMCA seek contributions

ST. PETERSBURG — For more than a year, admirers have staved off destruction for this grand city landmark.

Developers have offered good money to raze the 1920s-era YMCA building – there are better profits to be made with a new condominium at a prime downtown site on Fifth Avenue South, they say.

Tom Nestor and Eric Ihlenfeldt always say no, but they’ve had to ask time and again for the community’s benevolence as payments come due to keep the property under contract. At first, it was $8,000 installments; now it’s grown to $18,000.

Whenever it looks like time is running out, an “angel” steps in with enough cash to keep their vision alive, says Nestor, a music promoter.

So far, they’ve put in $166,000.

The next payment is due Saturday, but a bigger deadline is fast approaching on July 15, when they must come up with a full $1.2 million to close the deal.

“There are people that believe in our dream, people that believe in this building, people that do not want to see this building go away, but those people don’t have the liquidity to buy the building,” Nestor said.

With a sense of urgency rising, they hope to revive the civic spirit that first built the YMCA by finding 12 benefactors to contribute $100,000 each, enough to buy the property and ensure its safety for future generations.

After putting the word out at the beginning of the month, Nestor said they already have three pledges from like-minded people.

The YMCA originally was built with $550,000 in donations, millions in today’s dollars, according to a city report.

Opportunities would abound after this group of silent investors close on the property, with federal tax credits, historic restoration grants and other sources of funding only available after ownership is transferred, Nestor said.

The city has shown support for the effort, vacating about a dozen public parking spaces to be included with the property, enhancing its value and making it easier to accommodate future use as a music and entertainment center or possibly a hotel.

Nestor has big and varied ideas for the resurrected building: a café in the interior courtyard, a concert venue in the vast gymnasium, a music school for children in other rooms and refilling the expansive, tiled swimming pool where many longtime residents learned to swim as children.

His group Historic St. Pete Inc. is open to new ideas, but not all ideas.

For example, turning the underground pool into a parking lot is a deal breaker, and building a condo tower out of the back half of the building doesn’t jibe with their preservationist vision either.

“A hotel is not for public use. People can pay a lot of money and they can stay there and they can experience that, but the average Joe can’t walk in and say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful building,’” said Ihlenfeldt, president of the non-profit.

They have had talks about putting a smaller scale boutique hotel atop a public space, but Ihlenfeldt said keeping it open to the community has to be part of the plan.

Their pitch isn’t risk-free, investing serious money on a contract – which could fall through – to reopen a community center that may not bring a substantial return in the short-term.

“When we start talking about putting up money to buy real estate, typically the conversation goes, ‘Well, real estate is an investment, so how much money am I going to get back on it?’ ” Ihlenfeldt said.

What may have kept some donors at bay is the pending 501c3 status of their organization, meaning a charitable gift currently doesn’t come with a tax break.

Nestor says they are not looking for donations, but rather people who want to invest and become co-owners.

Other groups have worked alongside Historic St. Pete Inc. to save the building. St. Petersburg Preservation interceded when the owner originally sought permits to demolish it some years back.

Because it is designated a historic landmark, a property owner has to demonstrate that restoration is not economically viable before tearing it down.

On the flip side, few big developers have shown much interest in putting large amounts of money into these kinds of projects on the front end, leaving it to smaller groups to renovate them, said Peter Belmont, St. Petersburg Preservation’s vice president.

“If you can just have the money to get the project off the ground, it will be a profit-making,” Belmont said. “The difficulty is getting the money to get started.”

City incentives would allow new developments to get extra height or density if they purchase preservation credits meant to help pay for restorations. In many parts of the city, though, developers don’t need the credits because they already can build at a large scale without exceeding zoning caps, Belmont said.

While the owner of the old YMCA building, Phil Powell, has worked with Nestor’s group to help it buy the property, if it fails to close in July Nestor says there are backup offers from developers that probably don’t have preservation on their minds.

“If we default, we cannot protect this building,” he said.

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