By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
Published May 26, 2016
The first event, held in 2011, at the Firehouse Cultural Center was remarkable. It was on a Friday evening and lights were on and people had gathered to enjoy a variety of activities. It’s hard to overstate how stunning that was: it was a Friday night in Ruskin and the place was lit up, with something going on.
That event was actually held outside the then-recently donated, abandoned fire station. The giant firetruck doors were still doors and were flung wide open. Back then there was no air conditioning in the truck bay that would eventually become a theater.
Fast forward a mere half decade: the budget for the cultural center has grown nearly eight-fold. There is a wide array of programming now that reaches across the region, into every demographic, every community.
The success of the center is possibly something of a surprise to the founders and organizers, but it’s more likely that they knew and understood the needs it would fill for the residents in the southern part of the metro area. And through that success, dreams are coming true. The suburban south part of the Tampa Bay area has a regional asset of its own.
“It was difficult in the beginning getting the word out,” said Firehouse Cultural Center Executive Director Georgia Vahue. “We also had to shift from being all-volunteer to being a professional-level organization.”
When Hillsborough County abandoned the fire station at 101 1st Ave. N.E. in Ruskin for a new station on College Avenue, a handful of local artists and visionaries saw the potential in the empty building for something that would benefit the community.
The Firehouse Cultural Center began as an all-volunteer organization on a shoestring budget cobbled together largely from grants and donations. Progress was steady but slow at first, but the organizers and volunteers held course, reaching a tipping point.
The large doors are gone, and there are now walls in the theater, which is air-conditioned. There are meeting and class rooms and even a low-power FM radio station serving the area. From that first program on a Friday night, programs now run year-round.
Georgia Vahue came to her position from running a cultural center in the New York City area — that center was large and had an equally large staff. And despite the challenges here early on, she is appreciative and grateful in having a role in the growth of the center.
“This is much more hands-on, there is much more gratification in this,” she said. “Predominately through all of the education programs and through all of the arts. This is much broader.”
The programming at the cultural center has grown to the point that juggling the space is becoming a challenge. On any given day there could be three events, back to back, in which the theater or classrooms need to be changed to accommodate what is coming next. There is already talk of hopes for expansion.
“I do miss having a dedicated gallery,” Vahue said. “I think it will happen. Also, our robotics classes, for example, can have 30 students. With a larger space we could have 125.”
Currently, gallery space consists of the walls of the former truck bay turned theater. By and large, exhibits of work from students at the center or from local artists are brief due to the shared space. But there is reason for optimism.
“We’re growing and that’s what is exciting,” Vahue said. “We used to be scared about where the next dollar would come from, but now we’re more stable. Commissioner [Sandra] Murman and the board of county commissioners have been so supportive. They still own the property; we lease it from them for a dollar a year.”
The majority of the funding for the center comes not from tax dollars but from grants and event fees.
“It would be prohibitively expensive for the county to run this,” said Bruce Marsh, president of the center’s board of directors. “This is really a win-win for everyone.”
The cultural center now has ties with the local library, Hillsborough Community College and even the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. The diversity of offerings is staggering. And it’s not just classes or exhibits.
“Our Firehouse Pub has been doing very well,” Vahue said. “We offer jazz, blues, comedy — it’s the variety, and people know that they can come, they can relax, they can have a glass of wine and they don’t have to drive home from Tampa. They can be home in minutes. It also provides a venue for area performers.”
And now with school soon to be letting out, the center is gearing up for summer camps and classes for young people. Vahue is particularly proud of their classes designed to keep girls and young women involved in technology.
“At a certain age, girls start walking away or get pulled away from technology,” she said. “With a grant from the Community Foundation, we have programs to keep things going.“
There is something for everyone, from theater to painting to music to engineering. The classes are taught by dedicated teachers; some are interns from local high schools that are being paid by the Hillsborough County Education Foundation. That is another win-win for both the new educators and for the young people.
There are scholarships available on a need basis. As part of the requirements, young people are asked to write a paragraph about why they want to attend one of the classes or programs. One girl wrote that she wants to learn at the center as she hopes to become an engineer. And a fertility doctor. And, in her spare time from both, an actress.
Another child wrote of living with his grandparents as his own parents could not take care of him. He is in a gifted program at school and would like to take the robotics class over the summer.
The center is keeping dreams alive.
Vahue said the center has some scholarships still available for some of their programs but could use more.
“I’m going to tell you that we don’t turn anyone away. For $140, that takes care of one student for one week,” she said. “But even $10 helps. We invite donors to come out on Friday of the week to see what the kids they’ve helped have accomplished.”
And the kids come from everywhere: from Wimauma, Ruskin and Apollo Beach to Riverview.
“We’re not a babysitter,” Vahue continued. “We want them to learn, to use their creativity, their imagination. The theater classes, for example, literally help to give kids confidence.”
While several programs run year-round, the summer classes and programs begin next month. The summer camp and classes cover the gamut for people both young and old. The Firehouse Cultural Center, after just five years, has its footing and is reaching the entire community.
“There is a sense of pride in this,” Vahue said. “I think it has really contributed to livability in this region.”
For information on the summer camp, classes and other programs, visit the Firehouse Cultural Center website at www.firehouseculturalcenter.org or call 813-645-7651. Memberships and donations toward scholarships may also be made via the website, by calling the center or via mail.