Next Tuesday the evangelical Without Walls International Church plans on closing the deal to buy the historic Centro Español de West Tampa building from the almost defunct Urban League. But as WMNF’s Roxanne Escobales reports, today at a community meeting in West Tampa, lifelong residents banded together to say “not if we can help it.�

Organized by the newly formed Save Our Centro Committee, the meeting took place on the upper floor of the red brick West Tampa Library in the heart of the neighborhood. The 30 or so residents and business owners who showed up feel a passion for historic West Tampa not often found in such a constantly developing state as Florida. And they don’t want a large, evangelical church buying their history.


Born and bred in West Tampa, Marcelo Maseda billed himself as the oldest man in the room. He also used to be the vice president of the Centro Espanol in its original function as one of Tampa’s ethnic social clubs.


Almost everyone who spoke shared memories similar to Maseda’s. And like Maseda, their personal histories begin in West Tampa. Even the younger generations who either have childhood memories of the social club or grew up with the specter of a beautiful yet neglected, unused building feel moved to honor its roots.

Tampeña Kim Rivers


The Institute for Community Development, an offshoot of Without Walls International Church, offered to buy Centro Espanol from the Urban League after its operations stopped, due to running up huge debt restoring the nationally registered building. The Urban League was supposed to offer cultural and educational services in a complicated arrangement involving federal and local grant money tied to that specific purpose. The church’s Institute for Community Development says it wants to offer outreach, social services and cultural programs free of any religious teachings.

But Save Our Centro committee organizer and local arts activist Maura Barrios says residents were given very little notice about the sale. They heard about it for the first time in an October 17th St Petersburg Times article. With feelings running deep, Barrios believes in the spirit of the community to stop the sale and reclaim the Centro Espanol.


Local activist Joe Robinson wants to run for the district 5 Tampa City council seat being vacated by Kevin White to bring this issue to the table. Robinson brought a sheaf of documents with him, including copies of the contract between the city and the Urban League. He read from a 2001 pamphlet published by the Urban League.


The city of Tampa’s Janette Larusso Fenton is the manager for redevelopment in Drew Park and West Tampa. She attended today’s meeting to inform residents that the city is currently looking into the legal ins-and-outs of the deed and the sale.


Even if the sale goes through on November 14th as planned, and Without Wall’s Institute for Community Development buys the Centro Espanol, the city may still have legal recourse to controlling the outcome of the building.

The Save our Centro committee urges concerned residents to speak out at the next City Council meeting at 9 am on Thursday, November 16th.

In West Tampa, I’m Roxanne Escobales for WMNF Evening News.

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