Neighborhood community center emerges from West Tampa historic space, nurtures startups

Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory has been the setting for some of Tampa’s most iconic events.

A bronzed and dashing President John F. Kennedy joked about the popularity of his daughter Caroline there in November 1963, four days before his tragic assassination. Martin Luther King Jr., in a 1961 speech at the armory, praised local civil rights leaders for desegregating downtown Tampa lunchroom counters. 

And a guitar-slinging, pelvis-swiveling Elvis Presley thrilled thousands of young women in a 1955 performance forever memorialized on his debut album cover.

A half century later, the white, art deco building is again poised to make its mark on Tampa’s history. Residents and community leaders hope the armory’s new incarnation as the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center will spark a rebirth of the downtrodden West Tampa neighborhood surrounding the massive structure.

Jack Ross, who is leading the Jewish Community Center and Federation’s $26 million renovation of the armory, says new commercial and residential development has already taken place in the 4 1/2 years since the renovation was announced.

“West Tampa seems to be coming alive and it really seems like a renaissance,” Ross says. “We have the privilege of being part of this renaissance and we hope an important part.”

Israeli connection

Ross explains that the community center won’t just be a gaudy bauble, setting itself above and apart from the dreary neighborhoods nearby. Instead the more than 100,000 square feet of renovated space will provide recreational and cultural activities to uplift the community, Jewish and non-Jewish patrons alike.

And unlike most other community centers, the JCC wants the building to become an entrepreneurial center focused on creating jobs. With $1 million in seed money from Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, the center is creating a Florida-Israel Business Accelerator. The incubator will provide a “soft launch” pad for innovative Israeli companies that have proven technologies and want to grow a North American market.

“The hope is we bring the brightest and best to Tampa Bay and have them establish their North American offices in Tampa, hire Tampanians and extend their North American presence right there, creating jobs here in this community,” Ross says.

In laying the groundwork for the accelerator, the JCC has hired an Israeli CEO for the project. Ross and other Jewish Community Center leaders have been discussing the project with the University of Tel Aviv and business incubators in the Jewish state. The goal is for the business accelerator to be part of a local innovation “ecosystem” with already established groups such as Tampa Bay Wave, the University of Tampa Entrepreneur Center and USF Connect, the University of South Florida’s business and economic development initiative that provides help for tech startups.

“These are all young, innovative companies that are incubating and obtaining venture capital,” Ross says. “We hope to bring Israeli innovation and make it a unique part of the ecosystem.”
Incipient art district?

JCC leaders also see job-growing potential from a fine arts program that the Tampa city government will operate within the community center. Open to both members and non-members of the center, the program will offer art classes, jewelry and pottery making and studio space for budding artists. West Tampa boosters hope the program will cultivate an arts district along Howard and Armenia avenues.

Mike Traina, who owns an art and tattoo business at 408 N. Howard Ave., says he would like to see the community center spawn “shops and things you can walk around; not just one destination.” 

“If it’s going to be a strip of places you can walk through that will be nice,” Traina says. “Until they do that, I don’t know.” 

The area is still light years away from the trendy prosperity of the SoHo and Hyde Park areas to the south, or even the grittier
“The big thing about the Jewish Community Center is that, in conjunction with the Julian B. Lane Project, it will spill over onto Main Street. People will be able to walk and get out of their cars. There are already a lot of people walking around, but this is going beyond that to an explosion out of our beautiful Tampa to encompass West Tampa.” -- Dawn Hudson, president West Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
 Seminole Heights neighborhood north of downtown. West Tampa continues to struggle with crime, blight and poverty.

According to a city report last year, the 964-acre West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area has a crime rate 1.5 times higher than the city average. The CRA’s median household income of $18,856 is less than half the citywide median household income of $43,242. Within the area, 46.8 percent of the population has an income at or below the poverty level.

The results can be seen along Howard Avenue across from the community center. Though there are more than a smattering of businesses, many have burglar bars covering doors and windows. More than one business asks visitors to use a door in the back where they have to be buzzed in.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” says Dawn Hudson, president of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce. “There are guys hanging out on street corners, scurrilous activities going on, on Main Street. There is still crime to be contended with and improvements, like landscaping are missing -- a lot of fundamental curb appeal things.”

Turning the corner

But there is good news too. Because West Tampa is a blighted area close to the city’s central business district, it qualified to become a Community Redevelopment Area. Among other goodies, CRA’s have tax increment financing, meaning any growth in property tax revenues generated within the area are kept in the CRA for infrastructure or aesthetic improvements.

“It could be small business loans, it could be façade improvements or streetscaping,” Hudson says. “Do we repave Main Street and make it an art district?”

And at the far western side of the CRA, work will soon commence on the $35 million redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. The project, which could prove a legacy-maker for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, will transform the 26-acre park into a major destination for sports, concerts, art shows and picnicking on a large lawn looking down at the Hillsborough River. Boaters, kayakers and scullers will be able to access the park from the river itself.

“The big thing about the Jewish Community Center is that, in conjunction with the Julian B. Lane Project, it will spill over onto Main Street,” Hudson says. “People will be able to walk and get out of their cars. There are already a lot of people walking around, but this is going beyond that to an explosion out of our beautiful Tampa to encompass West Tampa.”

Fran Weinfeld says she’s already seen a difference in the neighborhood in the three years since she opened Fran Chong Tranquility Escape, a hair, nails and skin salon on Howard Avenue. A number of small businesses have moved into the neighborhood, she says, including College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving at Howard and West Cypress Avenue. Weinfeld attributes much of the new business activity to the announcement that the armory, vacant since 2004, would be renovated and house the Jewish Community Center.

“The neighborhood is changing,” Weinfeld says. “It’s not a scary neighborhood anymore.”

But addressing crime and poverty will take more than rising property values and hipster businesses, says Michael Randolph, economic development director for the West Tampa Community Development Corporation. For the Glazer Community Center to foment real change in surrounding neighborhoods, it must address the roots of poverty: lack of education, job training and social cohesion. Ways must be found to integrate people into the workforce who have prison records, physical disabilities or other handicaps.

“It has to be more than just a building,” Randolph says. “How do we convert that building into the heartbeat of that particular area.”
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Mike Salinero is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.