Lakeland Vision and some other organizations came to City Hall today with a vision for the future: a building that would house agencies that serve the elderly, a museum celebrating Lakeland’s diverse ethnic heritages and maybe a visitor bureau and center for business organizations.

It’s an idea that got its start last spring when City Commissioner Phillip Walker floated an idea for a museum celebrating Lakeland’s African-American heritage. As his fellow commissioners discussed it at the time, the idea grew to a center to explore all of the ethnic groups who contributed to Lakeland’s growth.

A partnership was formed with Lakeland Vision, whose Age-Friendly Lakeland initiative has dreamed of a center to house various local agencies that serve the elderly.

Those two groups decided to work together toward a joint center and then invited the participation of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce, which has been searching for a space in central Lakeland for a new headquarters and entrepreneurism center to house various business-serving agencies.

While Chamber President Cory Skeates is talking with the organizers about possibly adding a visitor center or office space, he said his board has not discussed their participation yet.

Today, organizers of the joint center asked city commissioners to support a study into the feasibility of placing a 5,000-square-foot facility in one of three locations:

  • Two vacant city-owned blocks northwest of the RP Funding Center. (See the map below.) Southeastern University’s Craig Collins, one of the coalition’s representatives, called it the preferred site.
  • The Lake Mirror Center property, which would require new construction. Collins said it’s already a hub for people from all walks of life but conceded that parking shortages would be a big issue.
  • Renovating a portion of Searstown, a facility that is not owned by the city, as the other two potential sites are.

City commissioners unanimously agreed to support the feasibility study, and City Manager Tony Delgado said his staff could conduct the study at minimal cost. An April 1 deadline is envisioned.

In addition to Walker and Collins, speakers at today’s meeting included Liz Craven of Age-Friendly Lakeland and Sallie Brisbane-Stone, who has advocated for an African-American Cultural Center and has worked with the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Authority to convert a city-owned building in the Parker Street neighborhood into offices and a cultural arts venue.

The coalition, which calls itself the Committee on Social and Communal Benefit, will report back to the City Commission in April, Collins said. By then, they should be able to announce a higher-education partner, financial backers, a dollar amount for the project and specifics on programming and space needs.

The group’s vision is “to collaboratively create a space that promotes active community engagement for citizens of all walks of life, regardless of age, ethnicity or economic status,” Craven said. “We want to create opportunities for intergenerational engagement.”

Newly appointed City Commissioner Don Selvage, who has been active with Age-Friendly Lakeland, picked up the theme. Active seniors who come to the center might volunteer as docents at the cultural heritage center, teach youth and fill audiences, he said.

Commissioners remarked that the RP Funding site is across two roads and railroad tracks from the forthcoming Bonnet Springs Park, and Mayor Bill Mutz asked whether there had been any discussion of locating the center at Bonnet Springs.

“If you have the money, they would be open to that,” Selvage said of the organizers of the massive urban park. “There may be better options, but Bonnet Springs would be ideal to us.”

The 5,000-square-foot figure would probably be adequate for the combined aging and cultural heritage center, Craven said, but a facility closer to 20,000 square feet would probably be needed if the Camber of Commerce becomes involved.

The chamber’s Skeates said the chamber has looked for a location in or near downtown, so a site like the one near the RP Funding Center would be more suitable than Searstown.

The city has viewed the vacant lots facing Main Street as a potential site for future expansion of arts or sports facilities related to the RP Funding Center, Delgado said.

Representatives of the RP Funding Center will take part in the feasibility study, along with departments such as Community Development, Parks and Recreation and Public Works, he said.

Video: Information session on the center

Age Friendly Lakeland & Rath Center Initiative Update Workshop 2018.11.05 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

ALSO: Ledger coverage


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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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