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Saving Centro will be challenge

The 95-year-old historic landmark needs care.

Published July 27, 2007

Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League's home for 84 years was Centro Espanol.
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]

Jan Groh peered into the glorious theater of her childhood Tuesday, with its Mediterranean and Moorish arches and exposed brick.

She remembered the Saturdays in 1945 when her mom didn't worry about the little girl's short walks alone to the Centro Espanol, when 9 cents could buy laughs at Abbott and Costello features and the entire community danced, ate and played dominos under one roof.

But Tuesday night, she saw something else in the historic national and local landmark: a roof that needed replacing, discarded office cabinets, scattered paint cans and bad termite damage.

Groh and about 90 of her neighbors gathered at the 95-year-old Centro Espanol building this week to learn from city officials just how bad the disrepair is and to envision the best plan to bring it back to life. There's no shortage of ideas for future uses of the building. Just a shortage of money.

The last occupants of the building, the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League, dissolved in debt last year without finishing building renovations, owing Wachovia Bank $1.83-million, Tampa nearly $800,000 and Hillsborough County $416,000.

The city bought the building in January for a little more than $1-million, but can't afford the $136,000 it will take to sustain the building each year. Officials need to find occupants to fill the building, who can run and restore it. The change, officials hope, will catalyze economic development for the West Tampa community. But occupants will face limitations. Restrictions tied to almost $2.6-million in grants require the building to be used for community cultural purposes.

Maura Barrios, with the West Tampa Council on Arts, Culture and History, proposed a cultural center, where neighbors could enjoy movies, lectures, art exhibits and concerts.

Chef Eric Holland wants to teach disadvantaged neighbors how to cook for free, in an in-house culinary school.

Developer Ed Turanchik wants to see the theater restored to its original grandeur a multimillion-dollar endeavor for which the city has no specific estimate yet and paired with a restaurant.

Already, some have inquired about the building: Tampa Bay Credit Union, state Rep. Michael Scionti, charter schools, caterers, major local nonprofit foundations and churches.

Let's get the County Commission involved, residents said. Let's put out a request for proposals, as the city did for the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

City officials will take the community input gathered Tuesday night and develop a plan to find occupants. If they can't be found, the city will look into "mothballing" the building, boarding it up to protect it until an acceptable use is proposed.

"This is a treasure," Turanchik said. "It shouldn't be offices. It should be an iconic cultural asset, in perpetuity. Take the time to do this right."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or

[Last modified July 26, 2007, 09:05:16]

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