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McLin bathhouse might be saved

The 3,500-square-foot structure was set for demolition, but supporters have rallied in hopes of giving it new life.

By ANDREW MEACHAM and JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Time was running out for the old E.H. McLin bathhouse in Campbell Park.

City officials had all but closed the book on the Campbell Park Neighborhood Association's request to let the building remain as a social service center, and the bathhouse was likely to be torn down early in March.

Then neighbors held a media conference Wednesday, attracting the attention of mayoral candidate Omali Yeshitela, civil rights leader Sevell Brown, two local television stations and a newspaper. Yeshitela called the scheduled demolition a symptom of the city's "terrible disregard" for Challenge area residents.

By Thursday, city officials had changed their minds, saying they would now consider letting the bathhouse stand despite its bad roof and uncertain future.

"This has become a political issue, and it doesn't warrant being a political issue," said City Administrator Tish Elston.

"If the community is that concerned, we are willing to re-evaluate the decision," Elston said.

"Sounds good to me," said Iveta Martin Berry, president of the neighborhood association. "All we're asking for is a chance to show (the city) that we can do this."

The bathhouse could be saved permanently if neighbors persuade officials they are serious about restoring the building to code standards and can find the money to operate the dozen programs they have been planning.

But Berry and the leaders who stood with her at the media conference say the episode is instructive about the depth of the fault line that exists between much of the African-American community and the city power structure.

Sometimes the power is symbolized by City Hall. Sometimes leaders in the African-American community simply refer to it as "downtown."

And, Brown, who leads the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said that sometimes the power structure is a "good old boy" network that can be white, black or a combination.

Yeshitela calls the gap an "artificial separation" not fostered by the people of St. Petersburg, but by those in power in the city government.

Campbell Park would seem an unlikely venue for such controversy. Just south of Tropicana Field, it is a peaceful place, home to the E.H. McLin pool and the venerable James Oliver Baseball Field. Campbell Park Elementary School rests on the park's eastern border.

A few years ago the city renovated the recreation center there and rebuilt the pool. Elsewhere in the Challenge area, the Wildwood recreation center is undergoing a $4.5-million rebuilding project that will make it the city's largest such center at 32,000 square feet. It will have two air-conditioned gymnasiums.

So it is not that the Challenge area is being ignored in the physical sense. But there is psychological and emotional dissonance. Leaders cite a feeling that residents must constantly be on guard to avoid being overlooked by the power structure.

Memories still are raw among people who lost their homes because of construction projects such as Interstate 275, Tropicana Field and the Hope VI project replacing Jordan Park.

"We have to fight for everything we get," said Berry, the Campbell Park neighborhood leader. "Everything."

She points to another Campbell Park example. When the Pinellas school district announced a huge rebuilding and renovation project for Challenge area schools, 6 park acres were imperiled by the plan to rebuild the elementary school.

Berry said she had to fight to get the parcel down to a 3-acre chunk. The neighborhood approved it, and Berry considers it a victory. In the March 27 city election, voters will decide whether to allow the school district to use 3 parkland acres.

"Now that the bathhouse is not a part of the acreage (the school district is asking for), we thought the bathhouse was freed up, and we thought they were going to give it to us," Berry said.

"But right here is an example. They never wrote to us and said in writing, we are not going to let you use this facility." Berry said she only found out about the planned demolition at a Feb. 16 meeting with city officials.

Then, early last week, Vearl Scott Sr., a 70-year-old retired baker, heard from a city worker that March 5 was the planned demolition date. That set in motion last week's media conference and Scott's effort to secure save-the-bathhouse signatures on a petition.

Meanwhile, Brown of the SCLC said Campbell Park residents are nervous because of grapevine chat about the possibility of hotels or condominiums being built in the neighborhood.

No such plans exist, said Rick Mussett, economic development administrator.

"It's wishful thinking on somebody's part, but I haven't seen a thing," Mussett said.

Brown said the SCLC is asking City Council for a five-year moratorium on demolishing historic sites in the African-American community.

Not that the 3,500-square-foot bathhouse, built in 1973, is considered historic. But it is associated with a name legendary among African-Americans. The pool is named for E.H. McLin. He worked as a salesman for the W.T. Grant Co., and was the first black person employed in that position by a major local department store. His sister, Olive B. McLin, is revered as an educator.

Brown also has spoken out against any demolition of Gibbs, the historic black high school. A renovation project there could endanger the original part of the school.

Meanwhile, city officials say the bathhouse needs a new roof worth $22,000 and more than $200,000 in other repairs. It would cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to tear the building down, said capital improvements director John Green.

The neighborhood has tried to raise funds to repair and maintain the bathhouse by charging Devil Rays fans $10 for parking in Campbell Park. At first the city did not object. Then its legal staff said the plan was illegal and that any revenues derived from Tropicana Field, which is on city property, would have to return to the city.

Last year, the neighborhood received $21,000 from the Juvenile Welfare Board, plus two supplemental grants to plan the family service center in the bathhouse. The JWB would never have been able to pay for structural repairs, but supported the neighborhood's plans whether for the McLin bathhouse or somewhere else, said Patty Van Alstine, the JWB's community planner.

News last month that the city plans $250,000 in repairs to the clubhouse at Huggins-Stengel Field in Crescent Lake Park angered Berry.

The space will be used for full-time staff of the city-sponsored Teen Arts, Sports and Cultural Opportunities, who have been working out of cramped quarters in the leisure services building at 1400 19th St. N. TASCO puts out Teen Impressions magazine through a grant from the Juvenile Welfare Board.

"If you can put a program funded by JWB on the north side, why can't you put one here?" Berry asked at a Wednesday night meeting in front of the bathhouse among eight or nine residents and city chief of staff Don McRae.

"We'll do it for city-funded programs," McRae replied. "We won't do it for a neighborhood association."

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