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A little space adds a sense of place

In just two years, the Northdale Community Center has proven to be a galvanizing force in the community - and more features are on the way.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002


NORTHDALE -- A tropical storm brewing in the gulf had brought wave after wave of thundershowers. The rain pelted campaign workers as they hustled to plant signs for their candidates in the sodden turf around the Northdale Community Center.

It was "meet the candidates" night in Northdale, and organizers worried that the weather might keep voters away. As it turned out, they had nothing to fear.

"We had over 180 attendees. It was about as packed a meeting as I've ever seen there," Northdale Community Association president Kevin Connolly said of the Sept. 5 event. "We had 16 candidates and there were more that showed up unannounced. The candidates told us it was by far and away the biggest forum they'd been to."

Overnight, it seemed, Northdale was on the map. And a lot of people are crediting the 2-year-old Northdale Community Center for helping recast the neighborhood's identity.

"We're trying to create more of a Northdale image," Connolly said. "We've kind of been in the shadow of Carrollwood for so many years."

The community center, built with $2.1-million in Community Investment Tax revenue, opened a few months behind schedule in November 2000. But it's been full speed ahead ever since then.

Every morning, the tennis courts are busy. Every afternoon, the park is alive with children in the afterschool program. And every evening, the meeting rooms are given over to line dancers and fencers, while the three basketball courts play host to as many as 50 hoopsters.

Over time, the center has become Northdale's de facto town hall.

"As far as the Northdale Civic Association, it's just been great for us," said civic association officer Matthew Wizeman. "We've been able to have the town hall meetings there and we really didn't have a facility before to do those. I think there are good people over there, too. Debbie Robinson is a good resource for the community."

Robinson, the center's director, runs the popular after school program (there are about 150 names on the waiting list) and coordinates all the requests from groups wanting time and space there.

Each day, about 180 elementary school-aged kids descend on the park, where Robinson and four counselors help them with homework, organize games and sports matches, and generally make sure everyone has a good time.

"We do homework together, we play games together, we do lots of things together," said Robinson, a senior recreation specialist who grew up in Jamaica and has been with the county parks department for 19 years.

Her job in Northdale could be about to grow. Pete Fowler, sectional manager for the county Parks and Recreation Department, said the county has another $2.1-million budgeted to spend on additional projects at the complex. Planning and design officials have been meeting with Northdale community leaders to identify how the money could best be used. Ideas include a gymnasium or an addition to the existing center.

"It's to accommodate additional special interest activities, community functions, meetings, just more of what we're doing right now," Fowler said.

And more, in this case, is definitely better. "I think the place has played an enormous role in the community," Connolly said.

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com

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