Urban League leaves unsettled issues

It's unclear if taxpayer money will be recovered.

Published July 19, 2006

TAMPA - When the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League shutters its doors, it will leave behind $1.2-million in taxpayer-funded improvements.

Will local government ever get the money back? Officials aren't sure.

The Urban League announced Monday that it would "dissolve" after being saddled with $3.1-million of debt for the past two years with no means to dig itself out. Tangled in the financial mess are government grant dollars and donations used to restore the League's headquarters on N Howard Avenue.

Had the Urban League finished renovating the Centro Espanol de West Tampa building and stayed there, it wouldn't owe the government anything. But now no one knows what will become of the League's headquarters and the public's investment.

"At this point ... we still have to wait and see," said Cyndy Miller, Tampa Growth Management and Development Services director.

She said city attorneys are monitoring the situation to see how the dissolution unfolds.

In 1999, the city gave the Urban League its West Tampa headquarters and arranged for renovation of the 94-year-old brick building with grants and gifts. The city loaned the Urban League $595,000 to restore the building. Half of the debt would have been forgiven upon completion of the renovation, and each year, 10 percent of the remaining balance would disappear.

The renovation isn't complete.

The city also gave the Urban League $200,000 in grant money in 2003 for renovations and rafter repairs. There were no strings attached, so long as the building was used by the Urban League and not sold before November 2008.

It's unclear whether the Urban League or the city will now have to repay the U.S. Department of Housing, which funded the grant. Additionally, the Urban League owes Wachovia $1.83-million from a consolidation loan, city records show. If Wachovia forecloses on the loan, city urban planner Stuart Campbell said, the government grant would be forgiven.

A Wachovia spokeswoman declined comment Tuesday, citing privacy rules.

Hillsborough County, meanwhile, gave the Urban League $416,000 in 2005 to pay off contractors and subcontractors, said Eric Johnson, county management and budget director. That money didn't have to be repaid if the building was used for community service and not sold before 2010.

Like the city, the county doesn't know whether it can recoup the money.

W. Lois Davis, interim chairwoman for the Urban League's board of directors, didn't return a call Tuesday.

The League also owes the IRS nearly $53,000 and United Health Care almost $41,000, records show.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.