Saving the Centro

West Tampa activists hope that a megachurch won't succeed in taking over a local landmark.

click to enlarge A social institution in West Tampa before it fell into disuse, the Centro Español building is at the center of a struggle between neighborhood arts advocates and a megachurch. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
A social institution in West Tampa before it fell into disuse, the Centro Español building is at the center of a struggle between neighborhood arts advocates and a megachurch.

Marcelo Maseda, 87, reckoned he was the oldest man in the Save Our Centro Committee meeting in early November at the West Tampa library. Still dapper in a hat and jacket, Maseda is a living piece of Tampa's history — a Tampeño, and the two-time mayor of Ybor City.

He also used to be vice president of the Centro Español de West Tampa, whose former building is at the center of a power struggle between the neighborhood, the current owner (and now-defunct) Urban League and an evangelical megachurch that wants to take over the historic structure.

"I was ashamed to say that a church was coming into Centro Español when all of us from West Tampa used to go the theater there, used to go to dances there, used to go to picnics there, play dominoes, take a drink once in a while," Maseda told the group of around three dozen West Tampa residents who, like him, mostly were born and raised a few blocks from the library.

"I tell you, it's a shame," he continued. "And we should get together and protest."

Organized and led by community activist and arts champion Maura Barrios, Save Our Centro has written letters, organized neighborhood meetings and spoken before the city council and County Commission. Members have been preparing for possible legal action to block the sale, while wondering why they don't have the support of Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who says she won't intervene.

At press time, the status of the deal between the Urban League and Without Walls International Church was very much in doubt. City documents reveal that Urban League Chairwoman Lois Davis called City Attorney David Smith to say the deal — set to close Dec. 14 — was off, but Without Walls' pastor told the Tampa Tribune that he still had a legally binding contract. Tampa legal officials now say the Urban League is in default of its agreements with the city and gives the nonprofit 30 days to restart its programs at the site or transfer title to the Centro Espanol back to the city. The church did not return Creative Loafing's repeated phone calls for comment.

Save Our Centro would rather see the Centro Espanol de West Tampa become an arts and cultural center owned by a community land trust and managed by a public-private partnership.

In 1999, the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League brought the promise of a new beginning for the West Tampa landmark when the city, under Mayor Dick Greco, deeded the building for $1 to the organization, which was known for its job training for blacks. Through the city and county, more than $1 million in federal funds were given to the Urban League on the condition that the Centro Español be historically preserved. But the Urban League had little experience in renovation. In July, the chapter went under, owing $3.1 million to Wachovia Bank, the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County, in that order.

Iorio says that was the city's first misstep.

"The original error was the city believing that a non-profit organization had the wherewithal to renovate this historic building," Iorio said in an interview on the WMNF Evening News last week, her first extensive public statement on the issue.

In August, Without Walls re-formed its nonprofit, the Institute for Community Development, to purchase the Centro and run social and cultural programs out of the building.

The Urban League owes Wachovia Bank $1.8 million. Without Walls offered $1 million and the bank agreed to forgive the rest. Iorio says that the new owners will need to spend an additional $1.3 million to complete the historical renovation on the Centro, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. If it's not completed, Tampa will have to pay back the federal government $800,000. Hillsborough County would owe another $416,000.

"Is the city eager to take on $1.3 million of historic renovation, when we don't have any money budgeted for that? No," Iorio said.

(The mayor has experience with costly projects inherited from her predecessor, Greco, including plans for a new Tampa Museum of Art the city could not afford, and loan payments for Greco's Centro Ybor project.)

Iorio added that the city doesn't have as much authority in the situation as Save Our Centro Committee members believe.

"When the people in the community say why hasn't the city been more aggressive, it's because we don't control the Urban League and we don't control the bank," Iorio said. "And there is a mortgage between the Urban League and the bank on this building that we can't interfere with."

Her stance disappoints the multi-generational West Tampa residents who care about the fate of the building. Founded at the turn of the century, the Centro Español once pulsed with the lives of Cuban and Italian cigar factory workers and community leaders. Now it stands empty on Howard Avenue, its theater long in ruins.

Without Walls' leader, Pastor Randy White, in October told the St. Petersburg Times that the church's motives are altruistic: "The thing that we did not need was more property. But... I was very excited about the potential of reaching the inner city because that's the heartbeat of the ministry."

West Tampa residents deeply doubt that objective. At another Save Our Centro meeting held last week, Cigar City magazine editor Marilyn Figueredo asked the group, "What do we think is the real reason for [Without Walls] wanting the building?"

The answer came in chorus from around the room: "It's a great real estate deal."

Billed as "The Perfect Church for People Who Aren't," Without Walls was founded in 1991 as the South Tampa Christian Center with a five-member congregation in a 1,100-square-foot storefront. It now boasts 18,000 members and two sites, in Tampa (near Raymond James Stadium and International Plaza) and Lakeland. Its website bills the Tampa location as "occupying 27 acres of prime real estate."

In the city's original contract with the Urban League, there's a reverter clause that states if the building isn't used for educational and cultural purposes, ownership would go back to the city. West Tampa residents believe challenging the legality of the sale through the reverter clause is the key to getting back the Centro.

"Their capacity to do the programming that they say they can do, I think that's where it's going to fall apart," Barrios said. "They had no real plan."

Roxanne Escobales is a news reporter and anchor for the WMNF Evening News.

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