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Byrd brings a little bit back for Plant City

After failing to secure funding for an Alzheimer's center, the House speaker gets a Plant City building into the budget.

Published May 24, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - With a tight state budget forcing most lawmakers to go without money for local projects, Republican House Speaker Johnnie Byrd will have something to brag about back home: more than $8.4-million for a new building in Plant City.

The building, planned for the Plant City campus of Hillsborough Community College, will be 47,000 square feet - large enough to hold a luncheon banquet during the annual Strawberry Festival, one local official said.

This year, Byrd caused a state budget impasse by pushing for a much bigger pet project: $45-million for an Alzheimer's disease research center at the University of South Florida that would bear his father's name. Byrd dropped the request this week and said he will try again next year.

Now, Democrats are attacking the $8.5-million Plant City building as a budget "turkey," one pushed by an individual lawmaker without rigorous review.

"What's happening, we think, is that a lot of these pet projects from (legislative) leadership are finding unique ways to get in the budget," said Democrat Doug Wiles of St. Augustine, the House minority leader.

Byrd spokeswoman Nicole DeLara said the speaker "didn't know exactly what the building was for" but had spoken to local officials and "he knew it was an important project for them."

In December, state education officials reviewed budget requests from all over Florida, and submitted a list of approved projects to the Legislature. That list recommended spending $848,346 on the Plant City building, to start initial planning for a three-year construction project.

By the end of the session, the appropriation had ballooned to more than $8.4-million. That's enough to start construction right away, said Felix Haynes, president of the HCC-Plant City campus.

"Johnnie Byrd accelerated it, and we've got to give him credit for that," Haynes said.

The new building isn't just for education. It's a joint project between the city and the college. In fact, Hillsborough Community College put a higher priority on other projects, including some improvements at the school's Brandon campus.

Several years ago, Plant City leaders contacted the college and said they wanted to join together to make the building happen, Haynes said.

Originally, the college planned "basically a gym with some classrooms around it," said John Huerta, vice president for external affairs at HCC.

"The city of Plant City came to us and said there is a need for a community center like that where they could have dinners and performances. We thought this was a perfect joint-use facility," Huerta said.

When Byrd became speaker, they traveled to Tallahassee to make their pitch.

Byrd "played a tremendous role," HCC lobbyist Michael Comins said. "It's something we had to have his blessing for."

The building will work as a school auditorium and also hold 1,600 people for community banquets, like the Strawberry Festival luncheon and Chamber of Commerce functions, Haynes said. It will also host trade shows and have classrooms for adult education. One program, involving the private Florida Farm Bureau and the public Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences, would teach people how to be mid level managers at large farming operations, Haynes said. Other programs might be run by the fruit and vegetable and nursery wholesale industry, Haynes said.

Haynes said the project has been in the works for years, and went through all the official channels. Byrd helped by getting all the construction money up front, he said.

Wiles said the project shouldn't be funded with dollars that are supposed to pay for school construction. "You could just about build an elementary school with the amount of money it takes to build this one center," Wiles said.

State records show that the appropriation was one of the last items negotiated on the budget. It was originally called the "Hillsborough CC Joint Community Center," but showed up at 11:30 p.m on Wednesday with a new name: "Multipurpose classrooms/Lab/Support Services Building - Plant City."

- Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 24, 2003, 02:15:16]

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