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Area businesses express concern over tax-exempt competition

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image Kids R Kids Southshore in Kings Lake Plaza on Big Bend Road is just one of the many private child care facilities in South County that picks children up after school in its own bus and takes them to their after school program. Penny Fletcher Photo

Some South County business owners say if County Commissioners approve the plan recently submitted by the YMCA, it will amount to tax-exempt competition for private business owners.

BY PENNY FLETCHER

APOLLO BEACH — Some South County business owners say if County Commissioners approve the plan recently submitted by the YMCA, it will amount to tax-exempt competition for private business owners.

YMCA officials disagree. They say their mission is community betterment and that is why they are able to keep their 501(c)(3)tax-exempt status.

Concerns of business people are rising because of a proposal for a public-private partnership between Hillsborough County and the YMCA to build a facility that could be as large as 30,000-square feet on land bordering both Big Bend Road in Riverview and Vance Vogel Park on Bullfrog Creek Road in Gibsonton.  

Business owners say this would be unfair because they are required to pay sales and property taxes, while the YMCA is not, yet they offer many of the same services as the YMCA.

“We paid more than $55,000 in property and sales taxes last year. I wish I had that to put back into the business so I could offer more programs,” said Logan Sultenfuss, co-owner of the Apollo Beach Racquet and Fitness Club. “The YMCA isn’t the same as when it was first started. Now it makes billions of dollars a year.”

Sultenfuss is not the only health club owner charging unfair competition from the YMCA.

The International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association based in Boston, Mass., states that these days, the YMCA is selling fitness like a business.

“Charitable donations are finite when the YMCA operates like a business and competes with true charities. In fact, it’s a double hit because the public loses both tax revenue and vital charitable services,” said IHRSA spokeswoman Meredith Poppler in email and telephone interviews April 23.

Tom Looby, CEO of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA explains that nationally, the Y does make billions of dollars annually. But it is permitted to keep its tax-exempt status because it not only scholarships families that cannot afford health clubs, but also performs other services. And because it is required to spend all its profits, it is able to offer many new programs which benefit whole communities.

“For instance, Hillsborough County has the highest number of kid’s drowning deaths for any county in the entire nation,” Looby said. “So we have partnered with the county already to build two swimming pools and teach swimming.”
The local Y has also partnered with the county for a full facility in Town n’ Country, he said.

“It works well, because they have the land and no money for facilities, and we, as a tax-exempt organization, must spend our profits, so we can offer the programs most needed in various areas,” Looby continued. “Locally, one in four families is usually scholar shipped, but in the recession, now it’s more like one in three. But our charitable status isn’t only based on scholarships for the poor. We offer other things to the community that entitle us to keep our 501(c)(3) status.”

In 2011 the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA provided area residents more than $7.1 million in scholarships.

Meanwhile, local businesses are worried that the new Y’s proposed location – which would be visible right off the Apollo Beach Interstate exit- will keep people from going into Apollo Beach to use their facilities.

“I was planning an expansion but have now put my plans on hold until I hear what happens with the Y,” said Phillip Penticost, owner of Victory Martial Arts Academy on Apollo Beach Boulevard. “An expansion is a 5-year business plan and now I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Penticost, who originally came to Florida from England, has been in business in Apollo Beach for two years.

Nancy and Rusty Solomon, owners of the Tampa Bay Martial Arts Academy, have been in Apollo Beach 14 years. Offering three complete programs, kickboxing, self defense and after school for youth, they also plan a summer camp.
Andy Keith was kickboxing in the same class as his two daughters, 5 and 7, when I arrived to take photographs. He said he’s there because he wants his girls to learn to defend themselves.

Eileen Eletto was also kicking up a storm Saturday morning. At 68, Eileen has been kickboxing about three months and says her energy and strength have never been better. “I’m preparing for my 50th class reunion and I want to look good,” she told me.

But the real strength of the Solomon’s programs was laid out by Shellie Nichols, whose three sons take part.

“Nothing the Y or any other program can do can replace these people,” said Nichols. “The Solomons are active with the whole family and with the schools. This presents a triangle of communication so the boys know everyone is in contact and aware of their actions.”

Her son Andrew, 8, said he loves the program because it helps him make better decisions. “It helps me control myself,” he said.

Andrew’s older brothers John Paul, 13 and Alex, 17 also take part and Alex also helps out with the kids after school.

Bruce Davis, owner of Flip Flops and Fitness in Apollo Beach, thinks Wimauma or Gibsonton would have been more suitable for the clientele the YMCA is trying to serve.

“The YMCA talks about its scholarships for families that can’t afford to belong,” Davis said. “So why not put it in an area like Wimauma or Gibsonton where there would be lots more who can’t afford to join health clubs?”

Many business owners pointed out that the current proposed location is near master planned communities along the Big Bend corridor that all have their own pools, tennis courts and gyms.

Davis says his main concern is traffic – especially the Interstate entrance and exit- at Apollo Beach. “It is so very dangerous and will eventually need a cloverleaf like Brandon has. When St. Joseph’s (hospital) and the mall are built on Big Bend, it will be terrible. It’s bad enough now. I don’t see why the county doesn’t designate this particular plot of land for road improvements that can be made by the state.”

Davis, a former trainer of Olympic gymnasts, says people who are serious about gymnastics will seek him out anyway because of his reputation with Olympians.  “I’m not worried about losing business,” he stated. “But I think the area chosen for the project is all wrong for the community.”

Teo Leonard, owner of Tampa PC Networks on Boytte Road in Riverview, has a different concern.

Leonard was on the board of his church when it was working with the YMCA to possibly go together and buy land on U.S. 301. “This was way before the “needs study” they are referring to now. “Because I was on the board of the church when we were deciding whether to work with the Y I know the facts presented (by Tom Looby and county officials) at the meeting (in January in Gibsonton) are incorrect. The county has decided where it wants this facility to go and has already made up its mind.”

Leonard’s church, the South Shore Methodist Church that used to meet at East Bay High school, eventually merged with Big Bend Methodist Church instead of working with the YMCA. “We just decided it wouldn’t be a good fit,” he said.

Carrie Elwell, who owns Kids R Kids child care in Kings Lake Plaza on Big Bend Road along with her husband Kevin, says what worries her most about the county putting out money in a joint public-private project is that there is a budget crunch.

“There is an educational budget crisis in our state and county causing established and effective programs, such as School Readiness and the county’s Parks and Recreation programs to be cut or eliminated,” Elwell said. “These, and other targeted programs, had been effective in helping an underserved and at-risk population of our community’s children. In light of this, it seems counter-intuitive for the county to provide millions of dollars in tax breaks and land grants to a quasi-public entity.”

Last week’s Observer News contained a story about the county entertaining a proposal to allow the YMCA to be built on what is currently listed as ELAPP land (ELAPP being the Environmental Acquisition and Protection Program) by using a clause in ELAPP documents that has not been used before. Those who have not read that story may find it by clicking here.

The public, both residents and business owners, may attend any of three meetings scheduled before the County Commission votes on whether to allow the currently-protected land to be released for use by the YMCA.

One of them is scheduled in the Planning Commission board room at its regular monthly board meeting May 14 at 2 p.m. Then, the same day at 5:30 p.m. there will be another chance for the public to comment at an open meeting also at the Planning Commission at County Center. At that meeting the Planning Commission will vote on whether to approve a measure presented by staff to allow land currently under the preservation program ELAPP to use its “acquisition of convenience” clause and release the land for use by the YMCA.

If the Planning Commission approves the measure, then County Commissioners will vote June 7 at 6 p.m. after giving the public a final chance to comment.

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