Youth program leaders fight to save historical homes at Tampa park

03/03/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Community Stepping Stones, The Moses House, Sulphur Springs, Mann Wagnon Park, Tampa, Hillsborough County, Les Miller


Students and teachers used old plastic bottles and other garbage to make colorful plastic flower arrangements.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Some volunteers with youth programs at a riverfront park in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood of Tampa are fighting to save their historical offices even though the Hillsborough County plans to fund the construction of a new multi-use building. Sigrid Tidmore is the executive director for Community Stepping Stones that runs out of a nearly 100-year old home at Mann Wagnon Park.

“The most environmentally destructive thing we can do is take functional buildings and throw them into landfills. That doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s much more environmentally sensitive to restore buildings and continue using them.”

Community Stepping Stones uses science and art to help middle and high school kids who are considered at risk of not graduating high school. Many of the group’s art projects use recycled material – making the prospect of demolishing what Tidmore sees as a perfectly usable space quite ironic.

“Every year we take our youth out to beaches and do cleanups and we collect all the garbage and we bring it back and so that they can make an artistic statement about it we create different kinds of art from it.”

Groups of students and their instructors made a giant mural made of painted pieces of discarded materials that spells out “One Waterway, One Tampa” with a manatee in the background. The mural is currently on display at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Most recently, groups of students created what they called “beasties” that look like colorful flower arrangements. They’re made from cut up pieces of plastic bottles, cups and drink lids.

“We were just invited to the Gasparilla Art show as an exemplary form of art by young people using recycled material.”

According to Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who has worked to secure about $400,000 in budget to build a new center at the park, Community Stepping Stones can still accomplish all the same things in a new, safe building.

“Those buildings out there are very old; they don’t meet code standards even though they’ve been painted by the not-for-profits. They have termite damage, they’re roofs are in bad shape, they’re air conditioners are on top of the roofs which means it’s dangerous because if something happens, the air conditioners can fall through.”

The funding already set aside is about 2/3 of what’s needed and Miller says bringing the existing structures to code would cost about a million dollars. Supporters of the current buildings disagree, saying they’re actually in pretty good shape. They also carry liability insurance just in case there are accidents on the property that is jointly owned by the city and county. And Community Stepping Stones’ director Tidmore says demolishing a piece of that neighborhood’s history would send the wrong message to an embattled community.

“In this community in particular, it’s been a throw away community. And I don’t just mean throw away trash; I mean throw away people, throw away houses, throw away lives.”

And some of the students are jumping into the fight as well. Sarah McCartney is 18. She’s a recent high school graduate who suffers from epilepsy, which makes it harder for her to learn than some kids. She made it through the arts program at Mann Wagnon Park and is now a volunteer there.

“So, why do they want to take our home away. Why can it not stay? Yeah these buildings are old, but that’s the charm about it. These buildings have a story and a homely feeling to it that I love. Yeah, this place that they want to tear down isn’t just Community Stepping Stones, an art center or a youth program, it’s a second home to teens like me.”

That was an excerpt from a poem she wrote asking the county to keep the youth programs at the Sulphur Springs Park alive and well. But she would be willing to accept a new building if it’s big enough for all of the non-profits, not just Stepping Stones. One of the old wooden buildings holds another youth program called the Moses House. They also work with at risk kids. Susan Greenbaum who is on the group’s board says the building the county is proposing wouldn’t have enough space for the youth programs and a history museum that is also on the property.

“If we had 4,000 square feet or more as opposed to 2,400 square feet, than we could do it and we would want to do it.”

Greenbaum says the county has tried hard to compromise with the groups. And Hillsborough County Commissioner Miller agrees, arguing he’s been working on the issue since 2010. Greenbaum would welcome a new facility if the groups can strike a compromise.

“Honestly, Moses House has the worst building. We would be better off with a double-wide trailer.”

One way or another though, she just wants to know what is going to happen.

“The garden right now is in disrepair because we’re not going to plant it so it can be bulldozed.”

There will be a public meeting to talk about the park’s fate on Thursday evening at 6:30 at the Spring Hill Community Center. Lakeema Matthew will be there. She’s also a former Community Stepping Stones student whose face is featured prominently on an Adamo Drive mural. She says the programs at Mann Wagnon Park are what got her to go to college. She’s in her final year studying studio arts at USF.

“In school, I had anger management you could say, problem. I’ve been in multiple fights and I would hang out with people that I shouldn’t hang out with. I knew that something was missing. I knew that I didn’t really want to do this and I wanted to actually do something with my life, but I didn’t know what.”

According to Hillsborough County Commissioner Miller, a new building would not interrupt programs at the current non-profits because they could continue using the existing buildings until the new one is finished. Miller couldn’t say whether the group could attempt to get historical designation to save the structures. Instead he says that issue is a matter for the county attorney.

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