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For the Firehouse Cultural Center’s first executive director, the road led her home

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image For Georgia Vahue, the Firehouse Cultural Center’s first executive director, the road to South Hillsborough led through London and New York before returning home to Florida. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Once a Fulbright Scholar in London and an executive with an arts center in New York, Georgia Vahue has come home to the Firehouse Cultural Center.

With the hiring of the first executive director, the Firehouse Cultural Center is setting the stage to become a regional player in arts and entertainment.  And with that vast potential open to the fledgling public arts center, it is likely that no better selection could have been made to fill the top post than Georgia Vahue. 

Vahue is a Tampa Bay native, a Fulbright Scholar, recently a former director of an arts center in metropolitan New York City and a woman who has now returned home to her roots to find a new home, seemingly tailored for her and her experience, in the Firehouse Cultural Center.

Before anyone thinks she is exclusively of the art elite, it, perhaps, could be pointed out that this is also a woman who found inspiration and intrepidity, albeit mistakenly, through a billboard advertising a local brew.

“I grew up in Tampa,” Vahue said.  “My Dad was at MacDill, my kids were born here and are still here and there are grandchildren now so it’s a lot of fun.”

According to Vahue, the change from running a New York City area arts center to the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin isn’t as big as it might seem.

“I think it has a lot of the same challenges, much of which is community awareness,” she said, comparing the Firehouse Cultural Center to the Great Neck Arts Center in New York.  “Great Neck is very close to the city and I think the competition for the arts, those challenges are similar to here.  It is building awareness that there are talented artists here, there are performers here and you don’t have to go into the city.  That’s the mission of the cultural center — to bring the culture here to this area.”

As South County continues to grow, the opportunities for arts and entertainment would, logically, grow with it.  For a number of area residents, the response to that could well be, “It’s about time.”

“On a Friday, you’ve been working all week, do you really want to go into Tampa?” she asked. “Why not come here, enjoy our programming?  Why not come to the Firehouse for a family concert or for a Jazz Night?”

In the late 1990s, Vahue was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to teach the arts in a culturally diverse area of London.  For her, the experience was a watershed; it opened her eyes to a far greater worldview of the arts.  The children she taught were native Londoners, along with a high percentage of children from Somalia and Bangladesh.  From London she went to New York and now has returned home to the Tampa Bay area. 

“I came back from my Fulbright in London and then 9/11 happened,” she said. “I was with a very good friend and we had been talking about getting married.  After 9/11 we decided that we shouldn’t wait any longer.  We decided that I would move to New York.  I took a leave of absence from Hillsborough County Schools thinking I would go up there for teaching.  I walked into the Great Neck Arts Center and their executive director saw my resume.  Ten years later, I left there and finally came home to Florida.”

Everything in her professional career has paved a road to Ruskin; her experience opens the door to vast possibilities and opportunities at the relatively new cultural center.

“Ideally I would like this to be the top venue, for cultural presentations,” she said.  “We are a presenter.  The mission is to bring those opportunities to this area.  This should be a top notch venue for entertainment, for cultural and educational opportunities, for the literary series, for book signings from noted authors.”

“This could also be a venue for small events, from weddings to family reunions to develop an earned income so we can continue to provide free resources to the community. It should be self-sustaining so we can continue to provide resources to a community that may not be able to pay for it. In order to do that, we need to develop an earned income. There are so many possibilities for partnerships here, and things to develop an earned income.”

Vahue is grateful the foundation of the cultural center is already well established.

“We are fortunate to have a significant underlying investment that came from the Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center and from the Arts Council at the very beginning,” she said.  “We also have the support of Hillsborough County and Commissioner Sandy Murman to invest in the people and the arts here.”

Everything in Vahue’s life has led her to this moment, to a former Hillsborough County Fire Rescue station turned cultural center.  It seemed to begin with her Fulbright post in London.

“I was just thrilled, it was life changing,” Vahue said. “When I went there I felt like Mary Tyler Moore.  I had never lived on my own and I ended up in London.  When I would take the train in, I would see a sign that said, 'Take Courage'.  That sign helped to give me the courage to do what I had to do.  When I’d get off the train, I’d walk across London Bridge and see Tower Bridge and I felt like I should throw my hat into the air.”

“Take Courage” must have felt like a message, a sign, perhaps, for a girl from Florida in a big, foreign city.  Only later did she find out that it was merely an advertisement for a local beer.  Ironically, years later the advertisement would yield complaints from some consumers and regulators in the U.K., by suggesting that alcohol could promote confidence.  Yet in Vahue’s case, it certainly did promote confidence — no alcohol required.

Since then, Vahue’s own experience and knowledge, gained in London, New York and simply in life, has been enough to provide her with the confidence she has needed.  It is experience the founders of the Firehouse Cultural Center are looking to capitalize on, bringing the arts and entertainment to this part of the greater metropolitan area.

“The good news is that I know what I’m doing,” Vahue said.  “This is not a job, this is my passion in life.”

That was said with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. Next time you drive through Ruskin, don’t be surprised if you see a hat, perhaps something like Mary Tyler Moore’s tam o’ shanter, flying through the air. Georgia Vahue is going to make it after all.

The Firehouse Cultural Center is located near the intersection of Shell Point Road and U.S. Highway 41 at 101 1st Avenue, NE in Ruskin.  For information, visit www.firehouseculturalcenter.org.

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