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Plant City Observer Friday, Jan. 12, 2018 11 months ago

Future of MLK center uncertain

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The City Commission voted to explore tearing down the aging recreation center and replacing it with a multi-million dollar community center.
by: Daniel Figueroa IV Staff Writer

Seven days before what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 87th birthday, the future of his eponymous recreation center in Plant City remains uncertain four months after damage from Hurricane Irma forced its closure.

City officials originally estimated damage to the 56-year-old structure housing the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center would cost up to $250,000 and said it could reopen shortly into the new year. However, upon closer inspection, issues exacerbated by Irma were found to be more extensive than originally thought, prompting city leaders to explore the option of replacing the building with a multi-million dollar, full-service community center.

Exterior design concept of the Auburndale Community Center and Gym. Courtesy of the Lunz Group.

“Over the years, and especially in the last few years, that building has been showing more and more age-related issues. The general condition of the building has become a constant maintenance issue for us,” Assistant City Manager Bill McDaniel said in a presentation to the City Commission.

Before Irma, steel girders on the exterior of the building began to rust through, moisture penetration issues led to mold growth and the air conditioning system was failing, leading to more moisture and mold issues.

Irma left the MLK Center without power for about four days. With no air circulation and more moisture pouring in, the building became a breeding ground for mold.

“The mold went crazy,” McDaniel said. “The mold bloom just spread throughout the building…the mold, the smell and the effects of the mold in the air were such that I couldn’t stay in there for more than a couple of minutes and had to get back out.”

File photo A widespread mold bloom in the MLK Recreation Center has made the facility unusable since Hurricane Irma passed through Plant City in September 2017.

“The mold went crazy. The mold bloom just spread throughout the building…the mold, the smell and the effects of the mold in the air were such that I couldn’t stay in there for more than a couple of minutes and had to get back out.”      — Bill McDaniel

After city workers did all they could to prevent further damage, McDaniel said, further inspection found it would cost about $400,000 to reopen the building, with continued maintenance cost an inevitability.

But repair wasn’t the only option. McDaniel presented the commission with another. Perhaps the city could use this as an opportunity to start anew. Instead of repairing the existing 8,000-square foot structure, it could be replaced with a full-service community center similar to the 35,000-square foot Auburndale Community Center and Gym.

Plant City residents supported the idea, stating such a facility was long overdue in the city, particularly in the northeast quadrant where the most growth is anticipated.

“I’m actually excited,” Plant City resident Danny McIntyre told the commission. “This is what community investment is to me. This is us spending money to make our place a great live, work and play place. I’ll be giving you the thumbs up.”

The proposal received cautious, but unanimous, support from the commission. Commissioner Mary Mathis supported the idea, asking if the city should “rebuild and start the clock at one” or repair and keep the current clock ticking.

Interior design concept of the Auburndale Community Center and Gym. Courtesy of the Lunz Group.

“We would have a unique facility in our community, we have a freedom of choice of what we want to do. It will support a healthy lifestyle and be long-lasting, maybe something aquatic. We’ve talked about it before because there’s room there,” she said. “It would be something for the young and the young at heart and would be an opportunity for Plant City to build a quality, quality community center facility.”

Commissioner Nate Kilton cautioned that an expanded center would include more staffing and maintenance costs that could extend beyond the construction costs alone.

“In concept, I support this. I’d love to see a facility like that and I think that’s the perfect location for it. Of course, being the accountant I have to take a step back and make sure this is something we can afford, not just in the construction, but the ongoing servicing of that facility.”

McDaniel said a new facility could cost around $3.5 million and be built by June 2019. The new facility would greatly expand on services offered at the current recreation center and could serve as an “event, education, and social center for the entire community” while also being a prototype for similar centers in other areas of the city.

Exterior design concept of the Auburndale Community Center and Gym. Courtesy of the Lunz Group.

Commissioners voted unanimously to authorize a request for proposal for the architectural design of a new facility, which would then allow for discovery of further design and construction costs, as well as potential costs to staff and operate the facility. From there, a financing plan would also be determined and the commission will decide to authorize a new facility or repair the existing one.

“The MLK Center has serviced our city well and I commend the leaders in 1961 for making the decision to build it back then and expand it over the years,” Mayor Rick Lott said. “I also believe that that building does not serve where we are going as a city. We constantly say that we’re a city that’s a great place to raise a family...I believe a well-designed recreation and community center strengthens that ability and makes a statement about our city that we do care about everyone in our community and we’re committed to building stronger families in Plant City.”

Recreation and Parks director Jack Holland said the MLK Center's two full-time employees and after-school program have been temporarily relocated to the Planteen Recreation Center. Other classes offered at the center have been suspended and alternate locations are being explored for its portion of the city's summer youth program.

Daniel Figueroa IV is a Staff Writer at the Plant City Times & Observer. He has been covering Plant City since 2017. Previously, he was the politics and veteran affairs reporter at the Ledger of Lakeland. He probably wants to ride motorcycles and trade books with...

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