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Walking the walk for the common good

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In Ruskin, what is old is new again.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

RUSKIN — It was a beautiful morning for a walk. Drivers in cars honked and waved as a large group of people adorned in red t-shirts walked through neighborhoods in Ruskin. Those taking part in the walk could feel good about doing something for their community. Those honking and waving could feel good that their neighbors cared enough about their community to walk the walk, as it were. Those walking were putting (shoe) rubber to the road to help realize a dream:  a cultural center in Ruskin.

Saturday was the fourth annual South Shore Cares Walk-a-thon sponsored by Keller Williams Realty and other area businesses. Though the charities and causes have changed each year, the commitment to the community has not. This year, the event, a three-mile walk through Ruskin, was to raise funds and awareness for the proposed Firehouse Cultural Center, a project of the Ruskin Community Development Foundation.

Art is one of the tenets upon which Ruskin was founded more than a century ago. The legacy of that spirit not only endures, it has spread from Sun City Center to Apollo Beach and Riverview. The Firehouse Cultural Center is an extension of that legacy, the quintessence of the spirit upon which South Hillsborough was settled. That members of the community joined together to walk towards the goal of realizing the proposed center is certainly fitting. Working together towards the common good is exactly what the founders hoped for all those years ago.

In Ruskin, what is old is new again. The current home of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue at 101 1st Avenue, NE, is land that was donated to the county decades ago by the Ruskin Commongood Society, the cooperative organization that formed Ruskin. Today, as the firefighters and first-responders prepare to move into their new building on College Avenue, the Board of County Commissioners has signaled approval of a plan to return the land and the building to the community. They have paved the way for the Firehouse Cultural Center, pending an acceptable financial plan for the center from the Ruskin Community Development Foundation (RCDF).

“I’m so excited about this project,” said RCDF member Sandy Council. “This will mean so much to our community. The potential is limitless. The expertise of the group of people working on this have the ability to create a world-class facility; most certainly one of regional impact. Not to mention the potential to kick-start the redevelopment of the downtown.”

According to Council, the word “Ruskin” was not included in the name of the center for a reason. Although the spirit of John Ruskin; the artist, architect, and philosopher whose writings and ideals formed the basis for the founding of the community, will be celebrated, the name was chosen to ensure the center represents not just Ruskin but all of South Hillsborough.

The RCDF, working with the Southshore Arts Council, hopes the cultural center will focus on the “full spectrum of the arts, and on education for all ages. [With] Center programs encouraging participation, engagement, discovery and learning. Firehouse Center will offer experiential connections to the arts and to the unique history, culture and natural environment of the south county region.”

The hope is that the center will inspire not only artists and the public appreciation for art but also more matter-of-fact pursuits, acting as a spark for the revitalization of downtown Ruskin. With the waterfront community becoming a leading regional magnet for tourism, the possibilities for new, and locally owned businesses in that district appears promising. The Firehouse Cultural Center could give rise to a renaissance for not only the arts in the region but also for business, the residents and those who visit.

But it all comes down to money. The Board of County Commissioners, while supporting the project, wants to see a viable financial plan before handing over the land and the old firehouse. According to Council, the expenses are easy enough to tally, including tens of thousands of dollars that would be needed to make the current firehouse restrooms ADA-compliant. The revenue is more difficult to tally. In order for this project of regional scope to take off, regional support from the public will be required. Currently, the center is supported by the RCDF; the Arts Council of Hillsborough County; the Southshore Arts Council; the University of South Florida, School of Art & Art History; along with south county businesses such as Keller Williams Realty and the Ruskin Redneck Trading Company. The biggest impact, however, will be in the hands — and the wallets — of south county residents themselves.

What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.
— John Ruskin

John Ruskin passed away a decade before his Florida namesake community was founded but his words still echo through thousands of posts on Twitter and Facebook, along with countless web pages. Certainly his spirit lives on in the few dozen people adorned in red t-shirts emblazoned with the words “South Shore Cares” who walked through neighborhoods to help build something for the betterment of the community at large. Indeed, what they did is what matters.

For more information about the Firehouse Cultural Center, and how you can help, visit www.firehouseculturalcenter.org.

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