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Debt, bad decisions doomed League

A string of misfortune and piled on debt from incomplete renovation projects brought the demise of one of Tampa's oldest nonprofit agencies.

Published August 14, 2006

TAMPA - The red brick building known as Centro Espanol de West Tampa was built in 1912. It's just a decade older than the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League, and the city, playing matchmaker, thought the pair was perfect.

Both could grow older serving the public together.

But the building became the Urban League's house of horrors, and one of the city's oldest nonprofit agencies - which opened doors for many blacks and gave thousands of poor people job training for 84 years - died in it.

While El Centro was being rebuilt as the League's new home, the group was crumbling under $3.1-million in debt - a dire situation its leadership shielded from the city early on.

Urban League officials contend they sought help but it never came. By July 17, the League had dissolved for good. How did an ill-fated building project kill one of Tampa's social service icons?

The nonprofit's collapse was a drawn-out demise marked by moments of bad luck, poor decisions and, in hindsight, a reluctance to accept help when it was offered.

* * *

In 1983, the city of Tampa bought historic El Centro on N Howard Avenue, once a social club for cigar workers, and tried unsuccessfully to redevelop it. One problem, said former Mayor Dick Greco, was the city needed tenants before it could justify spending money.

The Urban League wanted a new home. West Tampa was a depressed neighborhood where the League figured it could make a difference.

"It seemed like a great fit," Greco said.

At the helm of the League was president Joanna Tokley, who was known for passion, not her management. In the 1990s, the League board of directors recognized this and created a finance and operations position to help, former board member Ross Alander said. Late last month, Tokley declined to answer many questions about the League saying, "It doesn't do me or anyone else good to continue the media hype."

In 1997, the city gave the League the option to buy El Centro. The League hired Tampa architecture and construction management firms run by Cheikh Sylla, who had shown interest in the building years before.

In 1999, the Urban League paid the city $1 for the building and pledged to restore it using nearly $1.4-million in city-funneled grants.

But in early 2000, the project shut down after Sylla received a construction bid that was $800,000 over his guaranteed estimate. The League demanded Sylla meet his budget. Soon, he was gone in what he labeled a "contract disagreement."

"When you undertake construction projects that have a very tight budget," Sylla said, "time is not on your side and the longer it drags on, the greater the likelihood that you will exceed your budget."

Records show he was paid at least $534,000. In 2003, Sylla's company filed for bankruptcy.

The League started over, hiring Harry Howard of Howard & Associates Architects for about $80,000; far less than he would have charged someone else.

"In the beginning, they always had problems with money," he said. "I felt like it was my civic duty to assist."

Despite the upheaval, the League told the City Council in October 2002 that the first phase of renovations should be done in six months.

But in 2003, the League was in debt and had to spend even more to satisfy grant requirements, Tokley said in a statement she issued this summer as the League's future seemed in doubt.

"The 100-year-old building became a nightmare," she wrote.

Asbestos. Termites. Failing roof. Hidden defects. Increasing material costs. Historical designation constraints. Pigeon droppings. Security costs. Changes in architects and construction managers. A $3.2-million project grew to $5-million.

Bob Harrell, the city's former director of business and housing development, asked the League how it could make up construction shortfalls.

The League's board passed an "affirmation" saying it would secure enough money to cover construction costs in a "well-planned" $1.2-million campaign by selling naming rights, raffling a car, throwing a Hispanic Heritage event and finding grants.

That was good enough for city officials.

"No one wants to be critical of anything that's doing good," Greco said. Nonprofits are always short of cash, he said, so that wasn't unusual.

Less than five months after the League's affirmation, leaders asked for more money to fix the roof. The city gave them a $200,000 grant.

Tampa Housing and Community Development officials say no city grant money was misspent. The city tracked it all, urban planner Stuart Campbell said.

"All of the city funds were approved and spent on bricks and mortar," Campbell said.

As the Urban League's finances faltered, Tokley tried to use grant money to pay for thousands of dollars of marketing materials. The city turned her down.

The League soon needed money to pay off a construction lien, and in late 2004, Hillsborough County officials approached the League about buying the building and leasing its space, as a way to help. It could have been a way out of the building, which is tough to sell because of grant rules.

But the League rejected the offer, and the county gave it $416,000 to pay off the lien. The League didn't want to relinquish El Centro, county officials said.

But they couldn't afford payroll. An audit showed they owed payroll taxes, health insurance and contributions to retirement accounts.

In March 2005, concerned about financial oversight, the United Way ended a partnership begun in 1924, erasing $154,500 from League income. The next month board chairman Thomas Huggins III resigned.

W. Lois Davis, the interim chairwoman, sounded a "clarion call" for help and held several meetings with African-American leaders.

"But they responded at levels they could afford," League board member Pete Zinober said, "which was not at the level the Urban League needed."

Corporations shied away from making donations to pay back debt and "cure mismanagement," Zinober said. The League couldn't afford an executive director or a full-time bookkeeper. It's unclear what role the finance and operations position appointed in the '90s played.

"There were so many holes in the dike and no way to plug them," Zinober said.

That's when a group of outsiders came forward with a plan.

NAACP vice chairman Curtis Stokes, former Urban League president Augusta Thomas and former state Sen. Jim Hargrett, among others, formed a financial committee. They urged the nonprofit to take out loans that would be paid back with performance-based grants, so the League could get the money sooner. The group also told the League to call creditors and negotiate settlements.

Much of the debt could be erased, Stokes said.

"We had the mechanisms in place to turn this place around," Stokes said. "I don't mean to simplify, but I don't really think it was that hard to get out of."

Stokes said the plan was submitted, but as far as he knows, never acted upon.

In March, the National Urban League offered another idea. It asked Tampa to cede some control to the Pinellas County Urban League, but rescinded the directive when Tampa leaders sought time to think.

"There was so much discussion about wanting to take programs out of Tampa and move them to St. Petersburg," said state Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, a former board member. "But they're two different programs with two different needs."

Options dwindled. So did programs. The League staff fell from 49 two years ago to six.

In July 2005, League leaders gave Mayor Pam Iorio a memo outlining ways to help. They included paying off the League's debt, moving a city department into the building and paying rent, and taking ownership of the building.

"If we do not do something right now," Davis wrote, "we will not have an agency or building to fight for."

The League said the city didn't respond.

Mark Huey, city Economic and Urban Development administrator, said in July that those options didn't seem best options at the time. The city was working to find a buyer for the building and negotiate a "graceful landing" for the League, Huey said. The city thought there was more time to find a solution, he said.

But that wasn't the case.

Board members said Davis and former acting president Darrell Daniels shouldn't be blamed. They were firefighters, trying to stomp out flames sparked during Tokley's leadership.

"Their efforts were nothing less than heroic," Zinober said.

As for their own oversight role, some board members were absent so much the League sent a certified letter in February to those who hadn't been at a meeting in six months saying if they didn't attend the next meeting, it would be seen as their resignation.

This summer, the mayor made statements that seemed to be pushing the city harder to help. But it was too late, according to the League. Programs had been cut or transferred and the League was nothing more than a shell - like the mostly empty El Centro.

The city is still trying to figure out the fate of El Centro. League officials, meanwhile, have been silent on how dissolution will work. Some want to reconstitute a Tampa League. Others look back wondering if the Urban League would still be alive had people known its financial straits sooner.

"Maybe the thing was getting worse for a while and nobody was saying anything," Greco said.

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

[Last modified August 14, 2006, 01:25:09]

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