Florida city trying to decide fate of WWII-era rec center
By EILEEN ZAFFIRO-KEAN | The Daytona Beach News-Journal | Published: June 29, 2019
DAYTONA BEACH – Just in time for New Year's Eve in 1943, a new dance hall overlooking the Halifax River on Orange Avenue opened for the first time.
Constructed with $34,000 that mostly came from the federal government, it was a place where American soldiers could throw back a few drinks and swing dance one last time before heading to war zones across the globe. In the decades after World War II, the big band music faded and people walking across the large open wood floor were there for everything from elections to yoga classes to the city's annual Christmas party that packed in more than 900 employees.
At some point over the past 76 years, the charm of the structure a half block east of Beach Street got lost in rotting wood and a pervasive musty stench. The city-owned building has been closed for seven years now, and it's plagued with mold, water damage, buckling floorboards and peeling paint. It's boarded shut, and used only by termites, rodents and the occasional homeless person who slips into the crawlspace below the building constructed on pilings.
Last fall, city officials were poised to tear down what has become known as the City Island Recreation Center. When some local residents pleaded for a stay of execution, city leaders hired an architect and engineer who thoroughly examined the 6,000-square-foot building and estimated what various levels of renovation would cost.
The engineer-architect duo, who together were paid $25,000 for their work this spring, estimate renovation would cost anywhere from $762,450 to $1.5 million. The low-end cost of $762,450 would be "the absolute minimum" to allow the building to become operational again, the engineer said in his report released June 14.
City Commissioner Rob Gilliland said the $762,450 option bypasses so many things – including a fire protection system with sprinklers and alarms that's not in place now, and an efficient air temperature control system that's also needed – that the realistic renovation bill would ring in at something more like $1 million.
"It is absolutely not a priority for me to spend $1 million" on the recreation center, Gilliland said during a meeting last week. "The likelihood of that (building) surviving is not good."
A small group of residents have spent the past year trying to prevent another push for demolition. They're spooked by the 2010 Riverfront Master Plan that shows the area the recreation center sits on covered with a new restroom building, parking and picnic lawns.
They say the building is salvageable and holds too much precious local history to be reduced to rubble.
"It doesn't deserve the fate it's getting," said Anne Ruby, who has been trying to save the structure that was paid for primarily with Federal Works Administration funds. "Why have we allowed a city asset to deteriorate like this? We should not have closed it and allowed it to get to this condition."
Ruby is among those who want to see the small, prosaic building remain the simple community center it's been for decades. She thinks it could get plenty of use with senior citizen programs during weekdays, neighborhood meetings in the evening, and special events like art shows on weekends.
A local nonprofit veterans group wants to turn it into a military museum. Others prefer the restroom and green space master plan option that's part of a broader vision to add a restaurant, boat docks and water taxi to the narrow strip of land that's currently also occupied by the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce and the old library building used now by the Daytona Tortugas baseball team for offices.
The Veterans Museum and Educational Center group is pushing hardest to get inside the riverfront building. The grassroots nonprofit runs a small military museum now on the second floor of the Beach Street building that houses the Tic Toc shop. But the property owner who's been letting them operate there for free the past two years is hoping to get a paying commercial tenant in the space within the next year, so the veterans are in search of a permanent home for their soldier memorabilia, pictures and war memorial re-creations.
Bob Hawes, the group's vice president and a Korean War combat veteran who served in the Army, said the recreation center is perfect. It's about the amount of space they need, it would provide much more visibility and it would be located near the veterans' memorial planned to be built at the western end of the new Orange Avenue bridge that's under construction now, the octogenarian said.
"We believe it can be redone for our purposes for about $200,000," said Hawes, who is the veterans museum's director of exhibits. "The building is structurally sound."
He said he can get donated building materials and price breaks from builders and developers. But beyond that, the veterans want the city to retain ownership of the building, help with renovation costs and handle major repairs.
He said the city has handled all of the building's costs for 75 years, and his group is just asking for that to continue. Hawes said his group can raise money to help cover operating costs and maintenance. He said they already have $23,000, $7,000 of which was donated from a mayor's golf tournament.
Even if the city just handed over the building as it is, Hawes said they'd try to handle everything alone.
Mold, rodents and roof leaks
While the recreation center's fate is still undecided, the 75-page report from Cocoa-based TLC Engineering Solutions makes it clear that the concrete block structure would need extensive work to be put back into use.
The TLC engineer and architect with Orlando-based KMF Architects found problems both inside and outside the 1940s building. The structure is out of step with current Florida Building Code requirements, life safety egress standards and accessibility for people with disabilities, the pair determined during their late May inspections.
There's a long list of things that would have to be remedied to reopen. The inspectors found lead-based paint, both white and black mold, mildew and termites. They said there's "significant indication of live rodent activity on the exterior of the building."
They determined that the building's "primary structural support systems are in reasonably good condition." But they also detailed widespread water damage to everything from ceilings to walls to windows and found support structures and walls with cracks. There are openings in the roof large enough to let in sunlight and rain, and the heart-of-pine wood floor is buckling in several areas.
The landings, stairs, handrails and guardrails don't meet building code requirements. Double hung wood windows "are in general in complete failure," the sun porch is almost in complete failure, and the gutters and downspouts on the north side of the building are in complete failure, according to the report.
The engineer also reported that the facility's electrical and temperature control systems need to be replaced, and noted that there are "very poor building envelope and insulation conditions."
It's not the place a local contractor remembers when the city hired him for building renovations in 1999. Back then, the recreation center was still being used regularly for everything from martial arts classes to square dancing. When Lloyd Davis, president of Ormond Beach-based TYL Construction, got inside he was flooded with happy childhood memories of having fun there.
The 59-year-old Davis also found himself on an impromptu archeological dig when his workers started to remove some of the old walls. They found an American flag with only 48 stars, letters from the 1940s with 4-cent stamps and a poster advertising the Grand Ole Opry coming to town with information about buying tickets for $1 at a drugstore on Beach Street.
"It'll be a shame if they lose the building," Davis said.
The city paid Davis $38,719 to do some concrete repair, work on the glass block windows and renovate the bathrooms along with an office area. The bill this time will be much, much higher if city commissioners decide to save the building.
Renovation costs would be dictated largely by what the building would be used for, building code requirements and how extensive of an overhaul the city would want to tackle. The report suggests options that would cost about $762,450, $906,450, $1.07 million and $1.5 million.
If the city wanted to build a similar new structure with 100 parking spaces on another site, the engineer and architect estimated that would cost about $2.4 million.
'Money is the problem'
Gilliland said the city could try to get an ECHO grant to cover or help with renovation expenses. City Commissioner Ruth Trager said there might also be historical or veterans grants available. Trager wants to try to save the structure that sits across the road from the 105-year-old Jackie Robinson Ballpark.
"I think we need to get as much money as we can, and maybe that'll be enough," said Trager, who along with her husband Warren has been deeply involved in local historical organizations and efforts. "This is a historical building. It was well-used during World War II. I do think we need to keep up our history."
Trager wants to keep the recreation center from getting any closer to "demolition by neglect because we didn't keep it up." But Gilliland countered that the building has been beat up by numerous hurricanes and it's been around close to eight decades.
Gilliland said he understands there's history in the building but said "we just don't have the money."
Mayor Derrick Henry said it makes sense to put a military museum near the veterans memorial that will be located near the new bridge. But the mayor agrees with Gilliland on the money.
"By all means, I don't think we have $1 million," Henry said.
City Commissioner Paula Reed thinks the building should be saved. But if the veterans are going to be the tenants she said they'll need to "do their part" financially.
City Commissioner Quanita May said she doesn't know if the recreation center is "the best location" for the veterans museum. May said she's doing research to see what other locations are available.
Henry said commissioners have some time to figure out what to do.
"We can have a further discussion now that everyone knows what the renovation costs are," he said. "We don't have to tear down the building tomorrow."
The mayor agreed a veterans museum could revitalize the struggling recreation center building and add to the downtown renaissance being sparked by the new bridge, the planned $18 million makeover of Riverfront Park and the new Brown & Brown headquarters building being built on Beach Street.
"I believe it's a project that's worthy," Henry said.
Gilliland agrees the museum could be a good fit in the aging city building, but said "the money is the problem." Even if renovation costs could be covered, there would be ongoing maintenance costs for the city, he said.
Hawes argues the museum could be a major tourist attraction that wouldn't cost the city that much. At a recent City Commission meeting, Hawes asked commissioners if they could explain to local veterans "that the great city of Daytona Beach has no money to sponsor a veterans memorial museum, but is perfectly comfortable with spending $800,000 annually to maintain trees and shrubs in Riverfront Park."
Ruby hopes the structure is just transitioning to a new chapter.
"Whether it's used for the veterans museum or as a community center, it will be another reason for people to come downtown and explore Beach Street," Ruby said. "We need a variety of attractions to build a vibrant downtown. Tearing down this historic building to replace it with restrooms and parking would be a tragic waste of an historic community resource."
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