A local legend will forever have her name tied to the community following the emotional and joyous dedication ceremony last week for the new Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center.
Martin’s name had previously adorned the top of the commission chambers in City Hall, but city leaders wanted to do something more elaborate for the woman who led the community for decades. Now a nearly 30,000-square foot, state-of-the-art community center has been dubbed in her honor.
During the ceremony last week, members of the community gathered to reflect on Martin’s life and look toward the future that will be crafted in her honor at the new facility.
Many in the room — including Commissioner Mary Mathis — shared memories of growing up in her classroom or working under her when she led Plant City fearlessly and graciously in her time as commissioner and mayor. She was a pioneer. Not only was Martin the first woman to become mayor of Plant City, she was also the first female African-American elected mayor of a major city in the entire state of Florida.
Her influence molded the community into what we see today. She sat at the dais for 15 years, serving as mayor for seven terms and vice mayor for four terms.
If you were a resident of Plant City while Martin was alive, there is a good chance you knew her as the woman rarely sat at home. She was passionate about moving the entire community forward and was involved in a variety of organizations around town. Those included the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, Florida League of Cities and the Florida Strawberry Festival, and she also played a large role in the establishment of the Plant City Boys & Girls Club.
But it was her compassion and no-nonsense advice that crafted her legacy. William Thomas Sr. was the guest speaker of the evening. He told stories of her wisdom, of her infectious humor. He told stories of her inability to walk away when she saw someone in need and reflected on the numerous lessons she taught him of honorable leadership and strength through empathy.
“It just so happens that she was black, that she was a female, who managed to successfully navigate her way through a political career when that was not an easy thing for a female, particularly a black female,” Thomas said. “She ran a successful campaign in 1982 and remained on the city commission board for 15 years from 1982 to 1992. For those of you who don’t know, she actually left for a couple of years and came back in 1994, and she stayed there till she passed away in 1999. And that was a great loss for all of us.”
Leaning on his theme of “It just so happens,” Thomas said that as then-president of the Improvement League of Plant City, he often drove Martin and then-City Manager Nettie M. Draughon to the Ridge League of Cities meetings. He spent several moments reminiscing on that iconic duo. They were Batman and Robin, a pair that would enamor all who met them and have them in stitches with their quick humor.
Martin’s love for her community was evident in the way she fought for what she believed would be best for Plant City, Thomas said. She would fight for projects that would make it a better place to work and live. She would fight for her vision, one that reshaped the way the city would be molded. Part of that vision involved crafting what is now the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Complex.
“I can only hope that we use this facility to continue to carry out her dreams of improving recreation for our youth,” Thomas said. “It also just so happens her vision resulted in the acquisition of all the property on the west end of this park. I don’t know whether you guys know this or if you remember, but there were houses and even a store on the west end of this park. If it was not for that vision, where you are driving in now on Maryland Avenue, that would not have been possible. So she knew, she knew what was coming.”
He said it just so happened she served at a time when race relations in the Plant City community needed to improve. He said folks back then didn’t care for the perspective of black voices, didn’t care about the views of women. But she somehow managed to carve her career anyway and, when in power, she made sure all voices in the community were represented in the room.
“Which is why I often say, ‘It just so happens that she was the first true advocate of diversity and inclusion,’” Thomas said.
According to Thomas, she was a politician that underpromised and overdelivered, an asset he said you rarely see in elected officials. When she thought he was wrong she would calmly and firmly talk to him and let him know. And it was impossible to take offense because Thomas said he knew what she was telling him was for not only his benefit, but the benefit of the entire community.That sentiment was echoed prior to the ending by the many speeches from sitting commissioners, including Commissioner Mike Sparkman, who said Martin was “like a sister” to him. He fondly reflected on her passion for Plant City and said she shaped the way he led.
Plaques detailing Martin’s accomplishments and impact on the community are on display at the facility.
The Dedication and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony was invite-only to reduce crowd levels so the center could still allow for social distancing. There was a social hour starting at 5 p.m. and the ceremony began at 6 p.m. inside the gymnasium. Seats were spaced six feet apart and attendees were encouraged to keep their masks on throughout the ceremony.
The Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center, 302 S. Maryland Ave., was built to replace the former Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center that was originally built in 1961. The MLK Center was old and had been shuttered for months following damage caused by Hurricane Irma. The plan was originally to get repairs done and have the center up and running again by the end of 2018, but the damage done was far more extensive than commissioners and city staff imagined.
They were faced with a decision: either spend a massive amount of cash to repair the building or start looking to replace it. Ultimately, the commissioners agreed to start fresh and they used the opportunity to build something unlike anything Plant City has seen before. The bids came in — millions of dollars over the initial estimate — but the commissioners refused to back down and literally put their money where their mouths were by agreeing to bring the project to life.
In the end, Trias Construction delivered on time and within the allotted budget. It was a partnership most of the commission lauded during Thursday’s ceremony and Trias presented them with a golden shovel in honor of the new beginning.
Following the ceremony on Thursday, the entire community was invited to come out Friday evening and all day on Saturday to tour the facility. This allowed city staff to manage attendance, ensure social distancing and still let anyone who wished to see it the chance to get an in-depth tour.
The facility opened its doors Monday morning and acted as a designated polling place on Tuesday. If you wish to watch last week’s ceremony, the event was live streamed on the City of Plant City’s Facebook page.