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YMCA a possibility near Vance Vogel Park

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image Cindy Sofarelli will be in charge of the South County YMCA if it is built. Penny Fletcher Photo

To build or not to build, that is the question.

By Penny Fletcher

GIBSONTON — To build or not to build, that is the question.

Well, that was the question that was asked in a comprehensive survey done by Triangle 2 Consulting Partners.

The survey, completed in April 2010, concerned the demand for an area YMCA in south Hillsborough County, and if a demand was found, what the best location for it would be. 

“The answer was overwhelmingly ‘yes,’” said Tom Looby, president and CEO of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA to a group of interested residents at a meeting in Gibsonton Jan. 31. “The marketing firm said the demand in the South County area was among the highest recorded in surveys across the nation, and the site adjacent to Vance Vogel Sports Complex (according to the survey) is perfect.”

Vance Vogel is located at 13010 Bullfrog Creek Road in Gibsonton near the booming Big Bend corridor, which is the reason for that location being chosen, he added.

The many new housing developments along Big Bend Road and U.S. 301; the close proximity to Interstate 75; the new proposed mall and hospital slated for that area; and the nearness to East Bay High School, with which the YMCA is proposing mentoring programs for younger students who may be at risk or need tutoring by older role models, make it a perfect location for a YMCA, Looby continued.

The meeting was scheduled and conducted by Kurt Gremley, of the Hillsborough County Real Estate Services Department, to gather public comment on the proposal to build the YMCA on county-owned lands.

“If approved by the Board of County Commissioners, the project would be funded jointly with the YMCA, with about $2 million provided by the county,” Gremley said. “This project would provide additional recreational facilities in southern Hillsborough County. Preliminary plans include various indoor recreational facilities, an aquatic center, various athletic fields, and related improvements.”

The county originally acquired the land on the east side of I-75 along with an ELAPP acquisition (Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program), Gremley said, but the land on the proposed YMCA site was never designated as protected under ELAPP.

“The owner would only sell the parcel as a whole package, he wouldn’t split it,” Gremley explained. ‘But since ELAPP owns the portion, it would have to be paid for the property.”

The county can afford some construction, but not operation of new facilities, Gremley said.

Looby said the Y can afford operation, but not construction.

“We already have other examples of county/YMCA partnerships in Hillsborough County,” Looby said. “We have two swimming pools and a teen center jointly operated. There is also one YMCA in the northern part of the county that was built under a similar agreement.”

One of the main advantages of a YMCA over private health clubs in the area are that they have scholarships to provide for families that cannot afford to belong otherwise.  

“About one in three people belonging to the Y in the 18 branches around the county are on scholarships paid for by grants and donations,” Looby explained.

Last year the Y gave away $7.1 mil in scholarships throughout the county, with  $650,000 paying the way for the Campo Family YMCA in Valrico.

Cindy Sofarelli, group vice president and executive director of the Tampa Area YMCA currently is located at the Campo Y but will also oversee the new Y if it is built in South County, Looby said as he introduced her.

A preliminary site plan drawn by EMK Engineering Consultants of Tampa was  presented for comment.

A time frame of about two years is expected, Gremley said. “We would like to see the infrastructure, roadway improvements and other things like that done first and with the other projects slated for that area, we expect some of the costs for those to be picked up by them.”

He was referring to the new mall and St. Joseph’s Hospital, both approved for the general area of the Big Bend and US 41/ US 301 Corridor.

Dean Walters, president of the East Bay Little League spoke to the need for more ball fields. With more than 800 children participating in Little League, Vance Vogel fields just aren’t enough anymore, Walters said.

The county recently lightened the load for soccer players at Vance Vogel by building the new soccer fields at Big Bend Road just west of the Summerfield Elementary School,  almost to Balm-Riverview Road, but that has not helped baseball, Walters said. 

Mary Beth Sultenfuss, owner of the Apollo Beach Racquet and Fitness Center, objected to the county putting $2 million into a public/private partnership instead of constructing new fields.

“We who own similar facilities as the Y, with swimming, tennis a fitness center and after-school child care have to pay for any additions or improvements to our facilities. I do not understand how we, as taxpayers, who must pay our own way, can fail to object to the county’s putting $2 million into a private provider.”

The difference is because of the scholarships; the assurance that every person can participate who wishes to participate whether they can afford to or not, Looby said. “This makes for a broad community benefit. We are a nonprofit charity.” 

“I know the value of these scholarships,” said Jacqueline Miller. “My daughter in Pinellas County has a Downs syndrome child. They get a scholarship every year so the whole family gets to go for $20 a month. This has done them tremendous good. They couldn’t have ever afforded it on their own.” 

Questions came up about wetlands and endangered species studies throwing a wrench in the plan once the county began to spend money.

Gremley said preliminary studies have already been done, but he knows things could come up along the way.

“We’re in the middle of that right now and don’t have concrete answers but it doesn’t look like anything like that’s going to happen in this location,” he said.

Mark Thornton, director of Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department was also present for questions.

He said his department had addressed the flood plain issue in the area and the county would provide some drainage if necessary.

“We’re taking the preliminary plan to the Commissioners mid-February,” Thornton said.

People who want to offer support or objection to what they heard at the meeting are encouraged to contact their commissioners in the next two weeks.

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