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Services to grow with fees

Changes include meeting space, a babysitting area and a bigger workout room - but they will come with a price.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


CLEARWATER -- The Long Center is planning a $2.5-million expansion and renovation that will create a much larger workout room, more meeting and classroom space and some other frills, such as a playroom where parents could drop their children off while they hit the gym.

The addition also will lead to new fees for the center at 1501 N Belcher Road. The charges would help reduce the athletic complex's dependence on government funds, a goal the center has had for years, center executives say. Annual fees to use the renovated center will more than double, organizers said.

"This will round off our facilities for the community," said center director Mark Abdo. "The fitness element and the meeting room element are two areas that the community has been telling us they want, as well as being possible profit centers for us."

The expansion proposal will be presented to the Long Center board Wednesday for approval. After that, Long Center officials will seek the blessing of the center's four sponsor organizations that joined efforts to create the facility 11 years ago.

They will need approval from city officials in Clearwater and Safety Harbor, who fund nearly half of the center's yearly $1-million budget, which is rounded out by Long Center user fees and private donations.

The other two organizations that created the Long Center are the Clearwater for Youth sports league and the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens.

If all the groups say okay -- and the center can raise the money to fund the project -- then ground will be broken in mid-November, after Clearwater for Youth's football season, and the improvements would be ready in summer 2002.

The expansion involves adding a 15,000-square-foot, two-story addition to the west side of the Long Center building and creating a new entrance for people who want to use the Long Center's existing 75,000-square-foot athletic facilities.

The new entranceway would be closer to where many people attending youth swim meets or watching their kids play football park their cars, plans show.

Opening to the outside would be two new toilets and a small snack stand for participants of outdoor league sports played at the Long Center. Clearwater for Youth would also get 650 square feet of new storage space for athletic equipment.

Just inside the new front door would be a new registration desk and babysitting area.

The ground floor also would include two rooms of about 400 square feet, which could be rented for children's birthday parties, Abdo said, as well as for meetings or classes run by Clearwater and Safety Harbor.

Another new set of ground-floor restrooms would serve a new, 4,900-square-foot room above on the second floor.

The large room would have dividers to split it into three areas when needed. And similar to Clearwater's Harborview Center, the room could host meetings, city recreation classes and -- for a price -- even wedding receptions.

Existing offices at the Long Center also will be renovated as part of the $2.5-million project, Abdo said. And a new concession stand -- another revenue generator -- will be created on the existing second-floor of the center, near seats for spectators above the center's pool.

The existing Long Center lobby, located on the facility's east side, and some current meeting areas will be converted into the new fitness facility, with more exercise bikes, stair machines and weights.

James Appelt, the president of the Long Center board, estimated that the new fitness area would be five times larger than what is now offered.

"From my perspective, the center has been lacking fitness facilities," Appelt said. "The expansion will allow the center to provide that to its members. There's now a small fitness room, but it's not what you would expect at a state of the art facility."

But the new fitness facility will come at a cost.

Residents of Clearwater and Safety Harbor now pay $60 yearly, plus $1 per use, to utilize the Long Center. In the future, they may have to pay $150 yearly, Abdo said. People who aren't city residents would pay up to $200.

Both residents and non-residents would be able to choose not to use the new fitness center and get a cheaper yearly rate, Abdo said.

The proposed expansion will be financed by $1-million from Clearwater and $200,000 from Safety Harbor, which budgeted Penny for Pinellas, 1-cent sales tax revenues for it.

The cities also are chipping in roughly $200,000 in other funds, which the Long Center billed them for maintenance, Abdo said. The center has set aside about $100,000.

That leaves the center and its fundraising foundation asking Safety Harbor to chip in more money (another $200,000), seeking grants and asking for private donations to raise another $1-million to round out the budget for the expansion project, Abdo said.

Originally, the Long Center had planned a much larger expansion, adding two more gymnasiums and another 50-meter swimming pool to the existing building, while relocating playing fields and constructing a new UPARC senior center in Clearwater's nearby Coachman Ridge Park.

But both Clearwater and Safety Harbor officials balked at the high price tag of the grand ideas, about $11-million, which included raising $3-million to set aside as an endowment to fund future operating expenses.

"I made it quite clear that I thought the money just wouldn't be there," Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst said. "I think this new proposal is a much more palatable plan."

Giving Coachman Ridge Park to the Long Center would likely have involved a citywide referendum, for which Clearwater officials weren't prepared.

Also, Aungst said he was concerned that locating fields with lights at the back of the Coachman Ridge neighborhood would not have been appreciated by its residents.

Appelt, who lives in Coachman Ridge, agreed.

"I'm a resident of Coachman Ridge, and we would have had to make a presentation to my neighbors, and I can't say I was excited about that," Appelt said.

"I'm as happy as can be that we've taken the direction we have. We're meeting a real need, on real time, with reasonable amounts of money that are affordable, with all the other needs the cities have."

- Staff writer Christina Headrick covers the city of Clearwater. She can be reached at headrick@sptimes.co or by phone at 445-4160.

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