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Recreation enter ready for an upgrade

Commissioners are expected to approve funds to expand the Countryside facility.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Although the Countryside Recreation Center is only four years old, city commissioners say they are ready to spend $500,000 to expand it.

The expansion would add another 4,250 square feet to the 17,500-square-foot facility by next summer. It would create more room for classes ranging from ballroom dancing to aerobics, which now share the center's gymnasium with basketball and volleyball players. The center's workout room would double in size.

Countryside Recreation Center is already the city's largest and busiest recreation facility with about 79,000 annual users.

Commissioners discussed the issue at a workshop Monday and are expected to approve expansion of the facility at their regular Thursday night meeting.

"I've been to a number of meetings up there (in the Countryside area), and with the money that's available, this was the request of the community," Mayor Brian Aungst said.

This spring, commissioners postponed the recreation center expansion, as they debated millions of dollars of requests to improve the city's fire department over the next five years.

The fire department's needs have been partially resolved because the city now plans to squeeze into its long-term budget about $4.5-million for a new fire station in northwest Clearwater, along with new fire engines.

It's still unclear if any other projects on the city's Penny for Pinellas sales tax spending list will need to be trimmed or juggled so the fire services projects can be added. The City Commission won't debate that issue until this fall.

For several weeks, dozens of Countryside residents have sent letters and made phone calls to city officials, requesting expansion of their recreation center.

A group that dubbed itself Concerned Citizens of Countryside coordinated with city officials to put out a brochure and hold a neighborhood meeting to drum up support for the proposed expansion.

Countryside resident John Wiser, one of center's big supporters, said that he thinks the city's money will be well spent. On most nights, the center is busy, with people of all ages using it, he said.

"It's needed big time," Wiser said of the expansion. "This is the most used center of all of them ... And this project has the most immediate impact and benefits the most people in our neighborhood, and that's why it should go forward."

As alternatives, city administrators had debated spending the $500,000 earmarked for the recreation center on other neighborhood projects in the area. Top neighborhood desires included an expansion of the Countryside branch library's children's section, landscaping on neighborhood roads and a bike path from Curlew Road to Lake Chautauqua.

The city has no money set aside for the other projects, but will try to seek grants to help fund them, City Manager Mike Roberto said.

Roberto and Aungst contend that the Countryside Recreation Center should have been larger when it was constructed, but that the project's size and budget were trimmed.

In addition to the expansion, Kevin Dunbar, parks and recreation administrator, said the city plans to increase the cost of using the recreation center from $1 per use to about $2 per use.

Dunbar expects revenues from the Countryside Recreation Center to double in the next year, because of the combined effects of adding more room for classes at the facility and raising user fees.

Another project, to build a $4.8-million recreation complex in North Greenwood, is also moving forward this year, city officials said Monday. The long-awaited complex will include a branch library, new community swimming pool and gymnasium with at least two basketball courts.

Dunbar had hoped to spend approximately $625,000 more on the facility, adding a third basketball court. That could help attract large tournaments to the center, Dunbar said earlier this spring. But the money hasn't been included in next year's budget, said Budget Director Tina Wilson.

The city is sponsoring meetings at 7 p.m. Monday and June 22 at the Martin Luther King Community Center, 1201 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., to gather community input to help design the proposed facility. The city plans to start construction next year.

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