Armory is a hot property

Published April 28, 2006

Anyone who lives or visits South or West Tampa has seen the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. Bound by Howard and Armenia avenues - main north and south drags - the big white building with camouflaged trucks parked around it is hard to miss.

Thousands of cars whiz by it every day.

For that reason, and because of its rich history as a venue for dances, graduations and even a show by Elvis Presley, the city isn't taking lightly plans to redevelop the site. Officials insist that any new use enhance the area and spark redevelopment in West Tampa.

It's ambitious but necessary. Buildings like this don't come around too often.

On Tuesday, city and National Guard officials met with developers, architects and real estate investors interested in submitting ideas for the building. Under a 1980 deal between the city and the military, ownership reverts to the city if the armory's purpose changes, which it has.

The National Guard vacated the armory last year when it moved soldiers from the 53rd Infantry Brigade to a new facility in Pinellas Park. The Guard continues to use other buildings on the site for storage and training but eventually would like to relocate completely.

The military's move west presents a great opportunity for the area. Developers are eyeing the area north of Kennedy Boulevard to Interstate 275 with new vigor. And projects like Ed Turanchik's InTown Homes and Ken Morin's proposed large residential project on Rome Avenue are adding optimism to West Tampa.

In general, three camps have lined up to stake their claim on the armory. There are the developers who want a mixed-use project with commercial and residential, and possibly a park or even a skating rink. There are the preservationists who want the 1940 building restored to its original grandeur. And there are the civic leaders who want to add jobs and promote creative industries at the site.

Who wins remains to be seen. Parties have until May 26 to submit proposals to the city. After that, a six-person committee, including two military representatives, Bob Garcia of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Margaret Fisher of West Tampa Community Development Corp., will review the ideas and seek public opinion.

Picking the top proposal could take a few months or longer. Plans have to go through thick layers of local and military bureaucracies.

Parties can take over the entire 10-plus-acre site or just the south piece containing the 78,000-square-foot armory. Any bid for the whole shebang, though, must include provisions to move the military services still at the site. Developers also must resolve any environmental issues, including soil contamination from decades of storing vehicles there.

In other words, bidders should have pretty deep pockets or, at least, a plan to make the site profitable.

Despite potential hurdles, people at Tuesday's meeting at the West Tampa Library seemed fired up by the prospects. In fact, city officials had to bring in additional chairs to accommodate the larger than expected crowd of about 40.

Terry J. Trekas envisions concerts, boxing matches and other events at the 3,500-seat Fort Hesterly Events Center. He loves the art deco architecture and wants the building restored as a neighborhood destination. To help make it happen, he brought in well-regarded historic preservation architect Vivian Salaga.

Developer Mark Newkirk, whose family owned the Newk's Cafe site downtown, now slated for a high-rise, sees a mixed-use project at the armory, with commercial and residential space, ballparks and a skating rink.

Turanchik is rooting for a pitch from Tampa Digital Studios, which would create set construction and other production-related jobs in the arts field.

"It's too special of a place to just be office and residential,'' Turanchik said.

A good start would be to remove the chain-link fence and concrete barricades along Howard and Armenia.

Thousands of motorists and neighbors stand to benefit.

THE LAST DROP: Dave Andreychuk might not be leading the charge on the ice, but he's cheering on his former Tampa Bay Lightning teammates - from his namesake bar across from the St. Pete Times Forum. It's the hot spot this playoff season. Stop by and say hello. Chances are he'll be there.

Susan Thurston can be reached at thurston@sptimes.com or 226-3394.