Jewish Community Center Sparks Renaissance In West Tampa

Fort Homer Hesterly Armory is a cultural relic in West Tampa that evokes long-ago memories: a hip-swiveling Elvis Presley and swooning young girls, wrestling fans and sleeper holds, proms and cap and gown traditions, and  memorably a speech by President John F. Kennedy four days before his assassination in Dallas.

Today the 72-year-old art deco building sits in the midst of a commercial no-man's land, north of Kennedy Boulevard. It has been vacant since 2005, when the Florida National Guard moved most of its operations from the armory property at 552 N. Howard Ave. to Pinellas Park in Pinellas County.

But there is the promise of renewed life for the armory and surrounding neighborhoods of North Hyde Park and West Tampa.

The Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation is well along on plans to re-open the former military building as the southern campus of the Tampa Jewish Community Center. The re-design of the armory is by Jordan Behar of Behar + Peteranecz: Architecture in Clearwater.

And, though the community center likely won't open until 2016, the project already is attracting more investments along Howard and Armenia avenues.

A banner hanging from a chain link fence immediately across from the armory touts the arrival of a new location for Clinical Research of West Florida.

One block north of the armory and the city's Vila Brothers Park, Chabad Lubavitch of South Tampa is poised to build the Chabad Life and Learning Center on a vacant lot at the corner of Armenia Avenue and State Street.

"The whole West Tampa area's economic and cultural renaissance has begun and that is perhaps the real importance of it all," says Jack Ross, executive director of the Tampa Jewish Community Center. "It is to the benefit of West Tampa and the entire city."

Investments Attract Investors

The JCC's plans and a vacant lot across from the armory caught the attention of Aydin Keskiner, owner of Clinical Research of West Florida.

The medical facility conducts trials for pharmaceutical companies seeking approval of new drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Other locations are on Armenia, and in Clearwater.

"I believe (the area) has been primed for redevelopment as long as I can remember," says Keskiner. "We love the visibility of Howard, its proximity to downtown and interstates. I know a lot of other people are looking here, maybe to open more medical offices."

An opening for Clinical Research probably will be in 2015.

Design and construction plans are pending, but Keskiner says he expects costs could be as much as $2 millon.

As of October 1, the JCC entered a 99-year lease agreement for the armory property -- with an option to buy -- with the Florida National Guard. In the past year, JCC representatives commissioned a study to determine what kinds of programs were desired by the Jewish community and residents of West Tampa.

They have crafted a master plan for the project that includes a wellness center, a preschool, a kosher cafe, a recreational swimming pool, a gymnasium, a theater for film and stage productions, and meeting rooms.

Complementing Projects Build Community

Chabad received zoning approvals for its project from the Tampa City Council in November. However, a fund-raising campaign for an undetermined amount, and an approximately 8-month construction schedule, are awaiting the conclusion of the JCC's plans.

The anticipation is for the life and learning center to open about the same time as the JCC's community center, or possibly a bit earlier, says Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski.

Chabad plans to build an approximately 6,400-square-foot building designed by David Balber of David Balber Architecture, Inc. in Tampa. The three-story building will include a 65-seat sanctuary and an open, functional rooftop. Programs and activities at the life center will complement those of the community center.

"Our goal is to be a partner with (the JCC's community center) and create a synergy," says Dubrowski. "It could be a great asset to the community and a big boost to the corridor which is transforming rapidly."

The JCC's mission is to establish a community center that serves as the center for Jewish life and culture. However, as a charitable organization it also has a broader purpose of reaching out to everyone, Ross says.

About half of its members are Jewish.

The lease agreement includes the approximately 75,000-square-foot armory building and the southern portion of the 10-acre site. The Florida National Guard will keep its maintenance facilities on the northern end of the property.

The JCC anticipates a budget of about $20 million for construction and furnishings for the community center. No construction will take place until funding is secured. The new community center will be in addition to the JCC's community center in Citrus Park, which has operated for more than two decades in northwest Hillsborough County.

What Ross describes as a "whisper" campaign has garnered donations and pledges for about $9 million as of November. A formal capital campaign will be announced at the JCC's annual President's Dinner on Jan. 26.

The community center is a cause that the Jewish community has rallied to support, Ross says. Money has come in at nearly three times the rate of other capital projects, he says.

Gaining Traction In Neighborhood

In the last decade, many ideas have been floated for the armory including a boutique hotel, shops, a spa, a Veteran's Administration health clinic, a film studio and an ice rink.

This is the first project for the armory site to gain traction.

The renewed interest in West Tampa is a good sign, says Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association. "Any building or jobs that can be created to help increase the tax base is good," he said.

Chabad's life and learning center will offer programs and activities for adults and children on a range of topics such as Jewish history and traditions, holiday awareness, bar and bat mitzvah preparation and a teen club. Kosher catering is provided by Dina's Kitchen.

Chabad also participates in the University of South Florida's continuing education program, known as OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), and conducts ethics workshops for lawyers.

"We really try to to be more than just another synagogue,"  Dubrowski says. "We try to fill the gaps."

Dubrowski hopes the life center will be a gathering place where children, young professionals, families and individuals can hang out in a safe environment. The closeness to the JCC's community center opens opportunities for shared activities and joint memberships.

Dubrowski says Chabad does "very hands on, crafty workshops" that are fun but also teach children valuable lessons in Jewish history or traditions. And children, for example, can move from Chabad activities to sports activities at the community center's gymnasium.

"It's something we've talked about and are very excited about," he says.

Kathy Steele, a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop and earning a journalism degree from Georgia College. In her spare time, she likes writing, history and movies. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
Signup for Email Alerts