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Council to weigh options on new recreation center

Morningside residents have been promised the center, but Clearwater leaders are hedging.

By MIKE DONILA, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2008


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For years, Clearwater leaders promised Morningside residents a new recreation center.

But with serious budget cuts on the horizon, those plans are now uncertain. City officials aren't sure if they will cut the project altogether, delay it or consolidate it with a nearby library.

Some City Council members have already formed strong opinions on the project. Paul Gibson is adamantly opposed to new projects, saying the city doesn't have the money. But George Cretekos says Morningside residents have waited long enough for a new center and the city needs to deliver. Others say they need more information.

During tonight's City Council meeting, officials are expected to further discuss what the future holds for the recreation center at 2400 Harn Boulevard.

One proposal is to forge ahead with creating a $6-million regional center that adds more jobs and costs an additional $133,000 a year to operate. Part of the council's conversation tonight will be whether to approve a $415,000 contract with St. Petersburg-based Wannemacher Russell Architects to design the proposed 25,000-square-foot center.

The council also will discuss how to pay for the building. It has $3.1-million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax money set aside, but it needs another $2.9-million, possibly from its reserves or additional Penny funding.

Another proposal the city will discuss is whether to build the new center and expand it by 5,000 feet so it can absorb the East Library, which is located about 2 miles north on Drew Street.

The problem with this move, some city leaders say, is that both buildings are well-used, so traffic through the quiet neighborhood would be dramatically increased. Last year, the Morningside center had 71,500 visits and the East Branch library averages more than 20,000 visits per month.

It also would mean fewer materials for library users because there would be less space. Non-fiction and reference materials would likely be cut, since more people use the Internet to look up such material, said Barbara Pickell, the city's public library systems director.

Still, city officials say something has to be done to save money, and consolidation could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The city recently combined the beach library and recreation center and estimated the move will save $100,000 a year.

Combining the East Library and the Morningside Recreation Center would replace two outdated buildings. Morningside is more than 40 years old, and the 15,000-square-foot library branch is more than 20.

"This has the potential to be a more efficient way of providing services, but it's something that we'll have to talk more about," said City Manager Bill Horne.

Others, though, aren't so sure. Gibson said "it's premature" to talk about the facilities right now until the city knows the magnitude of its upcoming budget reductions. The city is still measuring the effect of Amendment 1, a voter-approved constitutional mandate that decreases the amount of money local governments will collect.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said he wants "significantly more information" until he commits to any proposal and plans to hold a public meeting to seek more input. The city has long discussed forming a partnership between the East Library and St. Petersburg College, although money could be an issue there, too.

Mary McGarvey, president of the Morningside-Meadows Homeowners' Association, said members will discuss the plans before tonight's meeting and hope to have a recommendation for the council.

She said she's glad the mayor is concerned about the traffic issues in the neighborhood. She added that members are expected to attend tonight's meeting.

Mike Donila can be reached at mdonila@sptimes.com or 727 445-4160.

The dollar reality

The proposed center would cost $6-million when design, fixtures and landscaping is factored in, plus an additional $133,000 per year to operate.

The 25,000-square-foot center would be built using $3.1-million in Penny for Pinellas money, but the city of Clearwater still needs to find an additional $2.9-million.

[Last modified February 6, 2008, 21:24:16]


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