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Gym demolition to pave way for community center

Wildwood's $4.5-million project includes two basketball courts and a remodeled baseball field.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- You could tell something was up.

Inside the silent Wildwood Recreation Center gymnasium, the basketball goals had been dismantled.

It looked and felt odd, because the game's percussive clatter has echoed for nearly 40 years in one of the city's playground basketball meccas.

The sounds were different last week. Cardboard boxes rustled and old pens rattled out of desk drawers turned upside down. Center director Yolanda Anderson and her staff were moving out.

Starting this week, the old gym at 2650 10th Ave. S is being torn down to make way for a new one. It will be twice as large, air-conditioned and equipped with meeting rooms, a computer lab and an arts center for teenagers. "One fantastic building," said Thomas "Jet" Jackson, a Leisure Services special programs manager.

The tear-down is the first step in the $4.5-million community center project, which will eventually boost the overall Wildwood site from 8.8 acres to 15.2, while expanding the gym from 12,000 to 32,000 square feet.

The new center is scheduled to be finished by late summer next year, officials say.

Besides the current gym, demolition will include the tennis courts, custodial sheds, restrooms, a concession stand, a small playground and a few trees. The Jennie Hall Swimming Pool, named for the woman who donated money for its construction, will remain. It will be open this summer.

And Little League baseball will finish its current season at the Wildwood fields.

Some programs, such as summer camps and reading tutorial sessions, will move temporarily to St. Petersburg High School, Jackson said.

The popular summer basketball programs will be absorbed by other centers. But the youth football program will continue its practice sessions at Wildwood during the season that begins in late summer.

Besides the new community center, which will have two basketball courts instead of one, the project includes new playground equipment, more outdoor lighting, a remodeled baseball field and improved parking.

Property acquisition continues in a three-block area east of the current site, where new tennis courts and a football field eventually will be placed.

The city has purchased seven pieces of property among a total of 30 to be acquired, officials said. Five tenants and two owners have had to move elsewhere.

The acquisition and relocation have gone smoothly, according to city officials and neighborhood leaders.

"Most of the people want to move because, you know, it's an older neighborhood," said Jean Hammond, former president of the Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association. "Most of the people it's going to affect are going to be renters."

Hammond, who has lived in the Wildwood community all her life, said most residents there are in favor of the new center.

"They need to build it for growth, and the growth is already here," said Hammond. "There are a lot of new houses (in the neighborhood) in the last two years."

The Penny for Pinellas sales tax and state and federal grants are paying for the project.

"It's going to be fantastic for the neighborhood," said Jackson, a 1963 Gibbs High graduate whose name for years has been virtually synonymous with recreation in the Wildwood and Campbell Park communities.

Jackson went to work at Wildwood in 1964, just three years after the old building opened. He supervised programs there and at Campbell Park until becoming an administrator two years ago.

Demolition is expected to begin Tuesday or Wednesday.

"We're just waiting for Florida Power to turn off the juice," Jackson said.

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