“If You Build It, They Will Come!” Winter Haven Residents Want Community Center Renovated
by James Coulter
Admin William Smith of the PCSO has lived near the Winter Haven Cultural and Recreational Center most of her life. She grew up in that neighborhood and remembers visiting the center many times in her youth.
She recalls when the center hosted many events for young people like herself, from talent and fashion shows to Halloween haunted houses, Black History programs, and poetry slams. She once recited a poem by Maya Angelou during one such slam.
Nowadays, what was once a hotbed of activity appears dormant, but not for lack of interest, Admin Smith said. She has seen many people want to visit the center, only to be turned away upon discovering the doors were locked.
The potential renovation of the community center has been a hot topic this last month at various public meetings, including one hosted last week. Some people want to see the center remodeled, while others think a new one should be built. Admin Williams affirms that people want a center that reflects their community and their interests.
“If you build it, they will come. If you offer it, they will come,” she said during public comments. “We have residents who want to use it. We come here from time to time. The doors are closed. The pool is not open. So for you to say it is not in use, it is not open to be in use…If you have it open and accessible, it will be used. There is a need, but we have nothing to offer.”
Last Thursday, the second community input meeting was hosted at the Winter Haven Recreational & Cultural Center to discuss potential renovations to the facility and gain public input from the surrounding community.
Opened in 1974, this nearly 50-year-old facility includes a 7,000 square foot building that includes a basketball court, fitness center, and outdoor pool. However, as it was constructed before ADA requirements and other modern regulations, the building poses many plumbing and mechanical engineering challenges that would require renovations, explained Deputy City Manager T. Michael Stavres.
In 2017, city staff identified the need to expand and improve the existing fitness facility areas. The next year, in 2018, more than $1.5 million in funding were included for fitness center and ADA improvements as part of a multi-year capital improvement plan. Over the next few years, renovations for the recreational center were identified as a priority, both by stakeholders Florence Villa CRA Advisory Committee through community input at public meetings and a community-wide survey.
In response to findings from a feasibility and spatial analysis study conducted by Straughn Trout Architect, the budget for the proposed renovations project was increased from $1.5 million to $5.2 million in 2020, then to $9.8 million in 2021 to help renovate amenities outside of the building, and to $14.12 million in 2022 to adjust for inflation in construction costs.
Stavres insists the best plan moving forward would be to build a new facility. Renovating the current building would not only require relocating its programs and services during the renovations but also addressing other challenges. For example, replacing the gymnasium floors would require removing the concrete slab underneath that is currently deteriorating. As such, building a new facility from scratch would be most preferable, he said.
The current proposal would be a new 37,000 square-foot building more than twice the size of the current recreational center. The new amenities would include a 2,000 square-foot “double gymnasium”, a library and media center, a new playground, and a new swimming pool with a splash pad area. The new building will be constructed with modern designs that will allow for more open space and natural lighting, Stavresexplained.
The biggest change would be to the swimming pool. With the deepest end being 10 feet and the “shallow” end being three feet, the overall depth can appear to young swimmers, Stavres said. The new pool would be designed to allow swimmers to walk into it at varying depths, which, along with the splash pad, would help better acclimate young swimmers, he explained.
This public input meeting was the second hosted this month. The first was hosted earlier on May 5. The feedback from both meetings will be utilized in the overall data for the project, which will then be presented at a City Commission meeting on June 13. Based on this feedback, the spatial master plan will be refined and will undergo a full design and permitting process for seven to ten months, during which time it will be updated through community engagements. Construction is anticipated to start in early 2023 and take nearly 12 months to complete.
Several dozen residents attended the meeting that evening. Many of them expressed support for renovating the center and potentially building a new one. One resident, Tamisha Miller, acknowledges the center has plenty of history, but a new facility needs to be made to better reflect modern needs. As someone who runs a business that teaches volleyball, she cannot use the facility, as there is nowhere to place the stakes for the netting.
“We have a lot of history here, we need to continue the history that we have…[but] this building needs to go,” she said.