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Civic center vision may come to end

Hernando will decide whether to let a Latin American group out of its lease. The group's president says the project is ''an impossible dream.''

By WILL VAN SANT

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003


SPRING HILL -- Two years ago, the county's Latino community rejoiced, and elected officials cheered on the celebrants.

A sign at County Line Road and Cobblestone Drive -- proclaiming the site the future home of the Latin American Civic and Cultural Association -- still announces to motorists the reason for all of the enthusiasm.

But a victim of its ambitious scope and failed attempts to get financial backing, the project will likely sputter to an end today. The County Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to approve the recommendations of its staff and release the association from its obligations under a 99-year lease for the site the group entered into with the county on Nov. 14, 2000.

According to Carmen Wolf, outgoing president of the Latin American Civic and Cultural Association, whose predecessor organization, the Latin American Social Club of Spring Hill, signed the lease, group members did not fully understand the costs involved and the nature of the agreement.

While the association was asked to pay only $10 a year for the site, construction costs for the center were to fall on their shoulders. It was to be used as a county emergency shelter and include park space open to the general public. Other civic groups and governmental organizations were also to have use of the center.

Preliminary estimates paid for by the association put construction costs at more than $1-million. Annual $25 dues from the group's roughly 220 members bring in just $5,500.

And, the lease allowed the county to terminate the agreement after five years and purchase any structures built on the property, as long as 180 days' notice was given.

"Under those conditions, there is no way this organization could come up with those funds," Wolf said. "The county never checked this organization to see whether they had the means to do it."

The group attempted to get money from SunTrust Bank, which objected that the association had no collateral for a loan and did not even own the property. When the group asked the county whether the land could be donated to them to serve as loan collateral, the answer was no.

David Bayliss, property coordinator for the county, said the site was owned by the general tax-paying public, and simply handing it over to a nonprofit group such as the association was unwise. Also, he said, had the organization been given the property and then sold it for a profit -- the 51/2 acres are valued at $64,200 -- the county would have appeared foolish.

Money wasn't the only thing at issue in the decision to get out from under the lease, Wolf said.

What was envisioned all along by group members, she said, was a clubhouse where parents could gather to talk about the education of their children, where elderly non-English speakers could meet to do crafts or hear Latino music without having to go to St. Augustine or Tampa, and where young people losing familiarity with the tongue of their forebears could study Spanish.

Instead, what the agreement called for was an activity center of benefit to the broader public, Wolf said, rather than something the county's growing Latino population could call its own.

It was not until July of last year that the membership of the organization was made aware of the details in the lease, Wolf said. In December, the group voted to abandon the agreement with the county.

"It was very obvious to us this was an impossible dream," Wolf said. "We are going to keep doing fundraisers and putting more money together and see if in the future we will be able to buy an old building or something we will be able to afford."

According to Wolf, there are still members of the organization, led by those responsible for spearheading the agreement with the county, who are opposed to letting go of the property. Though the division has created tensions, Wolf said there is no bitterness.

"They believe, truly believe," she said. "But I don't see it."

What becomes of the land has not been decided, though the county Department of Parks and Recreation has an interest in exploring its use as a recreation space of some type.

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

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