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Friday, Dec 19, 2014
Politics

Ybor ethnic clubs fading as membership ages

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Published:   |   Updated: April 19, 2014 at 08:27 AM

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— At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, the parking lot of the Centro Asturiano de Tampa was packed. Inside the club, Judy Blanco called the shots.

“B-51,” she said.

A couple hundred people, most of them grey-haired women, hunted their cards, blotters at the ready.

Monthly Bingo games have become a fund-raising staple for the Centro Asturiano, the historic home for Tampa's Spanish cigar workers and their descendants. The club is named after Asturias, a region on the north coast of Spain.

In its hey day decades ago, Centro Asturiano had thousands of members. Yellowing photos the club's walls shows the members decked out in suits and dresses moments before going inside to a dance.

With a hospital and a cemetery, Centro Asturiano cared for its members from the cradle to the grave. Today the aging building smells musty and had to braced inside when part of it began to sag several years ago. The hospital, memorialized in Dennis Lehane's novel “Live By Night,” is gone. The cemetery remains.

Membership is down to 150.

“Which isn't enough,” said Ginny Pannier, Asturiano's treasurer and acting director.

All four of Ybor's ethnic clubs are scraping by these days.

They're saddled with shaky finances, aging buildings and shrinking memberships. They survive largely by renting their historic headquarters, a strategy that puts them in competition with dozens of more modern venues across the city. They rely on the dedicated-yet-graying volunteers like Asturiano's Damas (ladies) and Caballeros (gentlemen) to keep things going.

“You can't do it without them,” said Pannier, herself a volunteer.

But love and dedication don't keep the lights on.

Financially, all four clubs are on shaky ground. Three of them — Asturiano, the Italian Club and Marti Maceo — ended 2012 with deficits, according to their most recent federal tax filings and audits conducted that year at the request of Hillsborough County.

Asturiano's $11,000 deficit in 2012 was a far cry from the $180,000 deficit it posted in 2009. But that doesn't mean the club is out of the financial woods yet.

“When we ended last year, it was pretty desperate,” Pannier said. She estimated of Centro Asturiano was $12,000 in the red in 2013.

The Cuban Club Foundation, which owns the building that houses the Circulo Cuban, squeaked into the black that year thanks largely to $200,000 in rental income during the week-long Republican National Convention.

“The RNC was a blessing for us,” said club treasurer Patrick Manteiga.

Last month, Manteiga got Tampa City Council to close an alley between the Cuban Club and El Pasaje, the office building that's its neighbor to the south. Demolition crews will remove the masonry walls that separate both buildings' rear parking from the alley, creating a combined space Manteiga said will hold up to 4,000 concert-goers. The majority of the income will to go to the Cuban Club, he said.

As with the other clubs, the Cuban Club is likely to pour any new revenue into the upkeep of its iconic building. The buildings lend Ybor City much of its historic character, but they're also money pits.

“The maintenance of these buildings is astronomical,” said Italian Club president Sal Guagliardo. The club has relied on state historic preservation grants to cover some of the costs, but those funds are drying up, he said.

“We need a godfather out there to come in and fund us,” Guagliardo said.

The Cuban Club and Italian Club both carry large mortgages on their buildings from earlier renovations.

The Cuban Club's $879,000 loan comes due June 30. Manteiga said the club has carried the debt for many years and will refinance it when it comes due. The Italian Club owes a balloon payment of $1.3 million at the end of 2015.

Two years ago, Hillborough County commissioners set aside $2 million to help the four clubs maintain their buildings. Centro Asturiano put $540,000 into air-conditioning for its 1,000-seat stage theater, among other improvements. Sociedad La Union Martí Maceo used its $248,000 on renovations to its 1950s-era building on Seventh Avenue.

“It's about 95 percent complete,” said Marti Maceo president Sharon Gomez.

The Cuban Club is still working on the business plan commissioners required as a condition of getting the money.

The Italian Club is also waiting for its grant. Guagliardo said the club wants to use money to pay down its mortgage -- a use commissioners specifically forbid.

Guagliardo said the club would have spent the grant money on emergency repairs it was forced to start before the money arrived. For that reason, they see the money has reimbursing the club for needed repairs. So far, the county hasn't been convinced.

“We are working toward getting reimbursed by the county,” said Joe Capitano Sr., who led the club for eight years. “We've been in negotiations with the county for probably three years on this.”

Guargliardo and Capitano conducted their conversation through a conference call. In the middle of talking, Guagliardo interrupted with news for Capitano:

“Rita passed,” he said. Both men fell silent for a moment.

Rita Messina, vice president of the Italian Club's ladies auxiliary had died two hours earlier.

“She was an active member,” Capitano said.

Messina's death was a reminder that all four clubs need to bring in new members or risk dying out.

An entire generation of Ybor City residents headed for the suburbs in the 1960s. Many of services the clubs offered a hundred years ago have been taken over by insurance companies or government agencies. There aren't a lot of reasons for Baby Boomers, their children and grandchildren to feel connections to the old clubs.

But the clubs aren't letting them get away that easily.

The Italian Club started its own Gasparilla krewe to generate interest among people younger than retirement age. Centro Asturiano is reaching out through Facebook and planning a summer camp modeled on one the Italian Club has run for a decade.

Asturiano has created memberships for families and young singles hoping to reclaim the club's diaspora.

“We're trying to reach out to the grandchildren of our members,” Pannier said. “Hopefully, we're instilling some excitement to keep this going.”

The clubs are also opening their memberships to anyone, not just people with historic or ethnic ties. Asturiano plans to recruit among Tampa's new wave of Spanish-speaking residents.

“They only thing we look for is someone that wants to continue the cultural identity of the club,” said Gomez. Martí Maceo was founded 100 years ago for Cubans of African descent.

Even as they work to keep Ybor's social clubs going, club leaders need only drive down Seventh Avenue to see what they're up against. The Centro Español once stood in the heart of Ybor. Today it's the Carne chop house.

Centro Español members abandoned Ybor City for West Tampa 30 years ago and sold their aging building.

Capitano said that's not an option for the Italian Club, no matter how difficult things get.

“We could never to that,” he said. “We owe it to our grandparents who came here with nothing.”

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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