West Tampa Convention Center's future at stake
TAMPA - The West Tampa Convention Center has enlivened the community with fiestas, flamenco dance recitals, dog shows, art exhibits, all-day "tastes" of West Tampa cuisine and, in election seasons, robust doses of politics. But the nearly 40-year-old building at 3005 Columbus Drive soon might be torn down, replaced by a Dollar General store and an unidentified second tenant. Tampa City Council members, at a 6 p.m. zoning hearing today, will consider the proposal by Palmetto Capitol Group of Thomasville, Ga. Plans for the property include two buildings, one of about 5,400 square feet and another of about 9,200 square feet. The property's owner – Centro Español de Tampa ethnic and cultural club – has a sales contract pending the zoning approval. Some see it as an inevitable future for a building in disrepair; others are sad to see the demise of a gathering place in the heart of one of Tampa's heavily Latino communities.Structural problems with the building, including uneven floors, could cost nearly $2 million to repair, said Rick Caldevilla, who serves on Centro Español's board. Declining membership has also been a factor. "It's run by volunteers," he said. The nonprofit club bought the building in 1990 from West Tampa Civic Clubs. Founded more than 120 years ago, Centro Español was the first mutual aid society founded in Ybor City to offer recreation, education and health care services to workers in the growing cigar industry. At its height in 1941, membership was about 9,000 but has dwindled steadily. Caldevilla estimates there are fewer than 100 members now. "It seems like everybody is pretty much in favor of Dollar General going there," Caldevilla said. Leo Alvarez, communications and marketing chairman of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, holds out hope another buyer will step forward. And, he said, some residents are upset about the proposed destruction of the building, which also serves as an election precinct. "You can tell there are structural issues," Alvarez said. But the convention center has been a community unifier. "You lose your identity of the neighborhood if you lose the convention center." If the sale goes through, it might be months before construction begins. Attorney Truett Gardner said the site is a former dump. The next step after rezoning would be completing an environmental study and clean-up. A handful of members of the MacFarlane Park Association and Neighborhood Crime Watch recently met for a progress report on the project. "I have not seen or heard any opposition," said association President Jerry Scaglione. Instead there is interest in bringing new retail and jobs to the area , he said. "There have been a lot of functions held [at the convention center]," Scaglione said. "There is no way we'll be able to replace it but they've got to do what they've got to do. You have to move forward."
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