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Red tape mires plans to convert old gym

School Board member "Sam'' Himmel's push for a community center fails to win key support. Superintendent David Hickey says the idea bypassed regular channels.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


INVERNESS -- In some ways, the hulking brick building that houses a few makeshift classrooms and storage space for large agricultural equipment is providing a real sense of deja vu to the School Board.

The former Citrus High School gymnasium is a lot like another old brick school in east Citrus: the old Hernando Elementary School.

No longer used for its original purpose, the old elementary school fell into disrepair and was abandoned. Then the public came forward to try to save the historic structure and convert it to some community use.

The debate raged for several years. Not until the board was ready to sell the structure and see it razed did an ambitious group convince the board that they could transform the building into a community center.

But the former Citrus High gym is also a very different project than the old Hernando Elementary building.

In this case, the School Board could end up with more responsibility to pay for or operate whatever might end up there, since the former gym is part of the Citrus High campus.

School Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel hopes the gym will someday be a gathering point for young people.

But one crucial player, superintendent David Hickey, has not supported the idea.

He has publicly criticized the renovation, saying it was not initiated through the regular channels and has not been reviewed and recommended by his Long Range Planning Committee.

Supporters of the community activities center concept want Hickey's support.

"It has to be a combined effort," said Ed Lattin, a community member who is pushing the concept. "We all live in the same community and if we can create something that can save a historic structure, make Citrus High School better and make the community better, it would seem to me that that would be a worthwhile pursuit."

Several months ago, the board voted to renovate the former gym into new agriculture and drafting classrooms, spending nearly $1-million to house the programs more appropriately.

But late last year, after that vote was taken, Himmel posed another idea: If it wasn't too much more expensive, why not build a new wing of classrooms specifically designed for those programs elsewhere on campus?

That way, the community could partner with the school system and transform the former gymnasium into a community center.

For several months, while architects continued to design the new classrooms for the former gym, the School Board has debated whether to stick with the project or explore Himmel's idea.

Earlier this month, a group of supporters including the county's community services director urged the board to consider Himmel's idea.

The board agreed to seek better cost estimates while continuing work on the original plan. Meanwhile, Himmel and the community members who appeared before the board supporting her option are gathering their own estimates.

"I have always been involved with kids' activities from T-ball to the basketball league," Himmel said. "There are so many athletic leagues and the county does not have facilities for inside activities . . .

"I'd hate to see a building like this go to waste."

Himmel has been frustrated about the slowness of getting actual cost estimates, and she said she wonders if part of the delay is attributable to Hickey's lack of support.

Hickey said last week that Himmel has had the best information the district has to offer. As for his feeling about the project, he said he is not sure creation of a community center is the best solution. It has not gone through the regular internal review processes and examined for how well it meets all the school's needs.

Board chairwoman Pat Deutschman said she questions whether the school district can use the old gym for anything other than classrooms.

After all, the state has strict rules about school districts using all their available space before becoming eligible to receive state construction dollars for new classroom areas.

Still, Himmel said she looked forward to receiving better cost estimates, especially on how much it would cost to renovate the former gym into a community activities center complete with new floors and maybe some bleachers.

But even then, there is no guarantee the public would fund the project. That has been a sticking point with some other board members. They have questioned whether the project is worth it if they have to pay a few hundred thousand extra to construct a new wing of classrooms plus a large chunk of the million dollars plus that a major gymnasium renovation could run.

It didn't help when the county's community services director, Brad Thorpe, who pledged county support to help run programs at a new community center, was asked about county financial support.

Thorpe had been a county commissioner when the community group working on the historic Hernando Elementary School sought money. Thorpe acknowledged that the group left the commission meeting empty-handed.

Lattin won't let Thorpe's response get him down.

In fact, he is focused on the support that has been received from the county on the renovation project at the Historic Courthouse.

Thorpe and Lattin are active in the Citrus County Historical Society leadership and that aspect of the project is one facet while Lattin is pushing the renovation idea.

His love of athletics is the other.

He got interested in the project when he was at Citrus High one evening last year to pick up his son, whose basketball league practiced on a staggered schedule because of the limited space in the existing high school gym.

He asked a coach what the old gym was now used for since the devastating high school fire in 1985 that prompted construction of the new school and new gymnasium.

The coach let him look, and Lattin was astonished. The old gym, which is the arch-roofed structure fronting on Main Street, had been converted into a massive storage closet with a few small makeshift classrooms.

A 1971 graduate of Citrus High, Lattin could still see gymnasium all over the structure. The 30-foot ceilings, brick walls and scoreboards were still there. "I thought to myself, "This is still a gym,' " he said.

Then he met with Himmel and started to think about the community potential for such a project. Lattin, a former teacher who now owns and operates an educational travel business based in Inverness, began to find that other communities in the area had converted old school gyms into community activity centers.

"Our whole concept that has evolved is let's make this a joint-use facility," he said. "It could be used by the school and the community in the evenings and weekends and summers when the demand is highest for community use."

To make that work, Lattin said, the county, the school district and the city of Inverness must lend moral and financial support. He doesn't discount help from private individuals or fundraisers, but he notes it is government's responsibility to provide recreational facilities.

In the same way that the county needs to be supportive of the concept, Lattin argues that the school district should also be open to unique and creative ideas, even if they don't bubble up through the normal process.

"I think we have the support of numerous teachers and coaches but because Mr. Hickey does not support this, that puts them in an awkward situation," Lattin said. "His complaint is that this did not flow through his planning committee, but sometimes good ideas don't . . .

"There still has to be a place for good ideas and concepts to be heard and not shunned because they did not percolate up through his process."

Hickey said his job is to try to look at the "big picture."

For him, that picture includes gathering information from his staff, sending it through the normal process which involves a cost analysis, discussions with the employees and the enhancement council of a school.

Himmel's idea has not taken that traditional route.

But another process did, a process approved by the entire School Board months ago.

At that time, the board tied two projects together. Not only were the architects who were hired supposed to design the new classrooms inside the old gym shell, but they were also supposed to design renovations for the area now housing the school's cafeteria.

Currently a new cafeteria is under construction at the high school. When that is ready to open, the existing cafeteria will be turned into classrooms.

As the School Board has recently debated whether to try the community activities center concept in the old gym, the clock continues to tick both on the design work on the other projects but also the costs associated with those designs.

Plus Hickey said he has immediate concerns.

"I have an overcrowded high school down there," he said, noting that the idea of building a new wing of classrooms would mean eating up valuable space on a high school campus which is not getting any bigger.

Space is a premium on the block, which also houses a packed Inverness Primary School campus, the school district's headquarters, the Inverness bus garage and the Renaissance Center campus.

"These are the big issues," he said. "I have given the board all of the appropriate information on this."

He said he has not tried to keep information from Himmel or those supporting the community gym concept.

"If the board wants the gym project, we'll make it happen," he said. "I'll see to it, but it will come at a cost."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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