Ruskin Firehouse Cultural Center Evolves With South Hillsborough County

When most Tampa Bay area residents think of Ruskin, tomatoes tend to steal the spotlight, because the first thing that generally comes to mind is the community's agriculture, rather than its arts culture.

However, a vacated firehouse is undergoing a transformation that may change that perception by setting a cultural renaissance into motion in south Hillsborough County. Today, the Ruskin Firehouse Cultural Center aims to serve the residents of Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Sun City, Gibsonton and Riverview, where public access to the arts has been historically absent. South Hillsborough County is currently home to more than 120,000 residents.

"This is a really big county. It covers 113 miles, diagonally, from the bottom county line all the way up to Keystone Lake. The Board of County Commissioners voted and felt strongly about having a cultural center in the south county region,'' says Firehouse Executive Director Georgia Vahue.

"When I first started here last May, there was a perception that the Firehouse was only serving Ruskin, but the purpose of this facility is actually to serve the entire South Shore community,'' she adds.

Many are surprised to learn that when Ruskin was founded in 1908, it was intended to flourish as an "intentional community'' that operates under the utopian ideals penned by 19th century English Artist, Writer and Philosopher John Ruskin. Vahue notes that the Ruskin Commongood Society, organized by the community's original founders, operated its own college, its own library and even had its own currency.

"I would say that [the Firehouse] definitely continues along the line of John Ruskin's original thoughts and the founders' plans for the community. The mission here is to provide programming in the arts, the humanities and about our environment to all diversities, all residents and for all ages,'' Vahue says.

Firefighters vacated the mid-century, concrete block firehouse, located at 101 1st Ave NE, in early 2011 because its location in a flood zone at the edge of Marsh Creek made it unsuitable for further use by the fire department. South Shore community arts advocates from the Ruskin Community Development Foundation (RCDF), however, recognized potential in the 5,000-square-foot firehouse space, and successfully petitioned the Hillsborough County Commission for its use as a community cultural center.

Following approximately $160,000 in renovations, the Firehouse Cultural Center was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and began to offer limited programming in late 2011. The cultural center launched its inaugural year of full-time, continual programming last summer, when Vahue joined the organization as its executive director.

Finding Financial Footing

Hillsborough County currently owns and rents the building to the Center for $1 per year, though Vahue says that the nonprofit organization is poised to take full financial responsibility for the property by December 2015.

Currently, the Center receives support in the form of grants from organizations including the RCDF, the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, the South Shore Arts Council, the Community Foundation of Sun City and the Siville Fund, as well as from numerous corporate supporters, private donors and member contributions.

Vahue says partnerships with community organizations play a vital role in its success.

"What's unique about this place is that we don't necessarily have to create our own programming. It's about bringing established, successful programming here, and making it accessible to residents of the South Hillsborough community,'' Vahue says.

Through its partnership with the Patel Conservatory and the Straz Center for Performing Arts in Tampa, the Ruskin Firehouse Cultural Center offers free improv and theatre classes in the spring and fall. The Center also partners with the Tampa Museum of Art to host the Big Draw, a worldwide drawing event that takes place in October, and in recent years has found a home for its South Shore participants at the Firehouse. Additional partnerships include Hillsborough County Schools and the University of South Florida, through which the Center strives to provide programs accessible to local students, including children and young adults with disabilities.

The Center hosts a four-week summer camp program, which Vahue says often expands upon themes introduced in one-day workshops offered by Hillsborough County Public Libraries, another community partner.

"What we attempt to do is present a level of programming that may not necessarily be offered anywhere else around here. For example if the South Shore library offers a watercolor class, but it's only a one-time workshop, then we'll offer a longer and more extensive series. They're offering something this summer working with clay, and in camp we'll expand on that by working with mosaics,'' Vahue explains.

Although the FCC charges tuition rates for its special classes and workshops, including its summer camps, Vahue says that its scholarship program assures that campers in need of financial assistance will not be turned away, as long as they can provide proof of need, a letter of intent and a letter of recommendation from a teacher or mentor. In the program's first year, Vahue says local organizations underwrote scholarships for nearly 90 percent of campers.

Entertainment Close To Home

The numerous public events staged at the Ruskin Firehouse Cultural Center are free, family-friendly, and take place in the Center's highly adaptable theatre space, adjacent classroom space or outdoors. Events include music performances, film screenings, literary events, theater performances and more.

The black box theater at the Center, which seats up to 200 people, features portable staging in addition to its set-in staging, electronic screens and movable chairs and tables that can transform the audience space into a traditional theatre setting or relaxed bistro-syle atmosphere at a moment's notice.

On weekends, the theater transforms into the Firehouse Pub, a jazz club-style setting where adult audiences can enjoy drinks and snacks from a cash bar while catching intimate performances by notable blues, jazz, country, and rock musicians, variety acts, and even the occasional radio theatre, as was the case of October's "War of the Worlds'' themed Pub Night.

"With the Firehouse Pub, people from the South Shore area don't have to drive into Tampa at night and be concerned about getting home late. Here, we open the doors at 7 p.m., and everyone is out of here by 9:45 and home by 10. It's a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere, where if you want to wear jeans you're fine -- and the music is phenomenal,'' Vahue says.

Prior to assuming her role at the Center, Vahue served as Director of Education and Gallery Programs at the Great Necks Art Center in Long Island.

"I took Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre in New York City as my inspiration for it. That's the kind of intimacy we were striving for, where people can enjoy the show and interact with the performers, and there's absolutely no pretentiousness at all,'' she adds.

Plein Air Painting Spaces

As the Center strides into its second year of full-time programming, Vahue says the South Shore community's positive reception to the cultural center encourages its plans to expand -- first, into its own backyard. She views the Center's creekside location, which posed a flood hazard to the fire department, as an opportunity to develop plein air painting spaces and a dockside classroom.

"Our vision is to go up. Right now, we have the wonderful, flexible theater and our classroom -- but we've already run out of space. Our goal is to create outdoor classrooms so that we can offer classes that focus on our unique environment, and to create a 'Discovery Trail' so that classes from area schools can go on walking tours and see Florida native plants,'' Vahue says.

As the fledgling cultural center looks toward its future, one thing is clear: Ruskin soil may be best known for the tomatoes it yields today, but now that the Firehouse Cultural Center provides fertile ground for resident to sow their artistic seeds, the cultural landscape is poised to blossom in south Hillsborough County.

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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