State senator to open community center

It’s an area only four square miles large. It is home to about 43,000 people and is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Florida.

The crime rate is high, and the people are disadvantaged.

And it’s located directly adjacent to USF.

But, as of Saturday, there will be a beacon of hope for those living in the area around 22nd Street, between Fletcher Avenue and Bearss Avenue.

State Sen. Victor Crist and others will officially open the $9-million, 50,000-square-foot University Area Community Center.

The center, which is expected to accept 2,000 people a day, will provide pre-kindergarten day care, teaching for special needs kids, an outreach center, GED programs, a vocational center and small business development.

Crist, a USF alumnus who was a fierce advocate for the construction of the center, said its purpose is to turn around a neighborhood in despair.

“This facility was needed to house programs and services to help people develop skills, advance their education, cultivate vocational skills and acquire meaningful jobs that lead to careers that improve the quality of their lives,” Crist said. “It is proving to be effective in reducing crime and improving the quality of life for not just residents of the west side of campus but for everyone who lives and works around USF.”

Crist said that while the center caters to children and adults alike, it is especially important in a county in which four schools received a state of Florida “F” rating.

“This (center) prepares children to go to school and be ready to learn,” Crist said. “We teach learning skills. We help cultivate positive behavior and positive attitudes and develop a desire within a child to want to learn.”

The construction and opening has been a special project for Crist, who worked 1,000 hours a year as a volunteer on the project. He said Saturday is also his 44th birthday, and marks his 22nd year working in the USF area, which is not in the area of his Senate seat.

“For me, it’s about half my life,” Crist said.

Crist said he is concerned about how his volunteer work on the project is seen in the USF community. He said he has felt a gross misunderstanding at USF from a number of different sources about his efforts in the area.

“There is a huge misconception within the university that I am paid,” Crist said. “This is a volunteer position. I have never been paid a salary. I receive no financial reenumeration of any kind.”

Crist said he, as a board member for the center, does not have an office and works only when he can.

“This is not in my Senate seat,” he said. “It’s not about politics. It’s not about financial gains. It’s about helping people with the greatest gains.”

Crist said his background in pushing for community improvements and desire for projects such as the center, came from his parents. He said he has always wanted to lead in such projects, and demonstrated those skills during his time at USF. As an undergraduate, Crist organized students living off-campus to demand better living conditions and lower prices from area apartment landlords.

“I enjoy a challenge. I thrive on a challenge,” Crist said. “It’s about getting stuff done.”

As for the center, Crist said Saturday’s grand opening is the beginning of a continuing project. He said 70 additional acres of land have been purchased and cleared for a 30-month expansion project. The additions will include a senior center, park expansion, library and school for special-needs children.

Crist said Saturday’s opening, and the future of the area, is directed toward the goal of improving life in the university area.

“It’s very clear what issues we’re having to contend with here,” Crist said. “A lot of them are significant concerns.”