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Rejuvinated Mann-Wagnon park is among recent community improvements

TAMPA - Nearly a dozen volunteers last week grabbed work gloves, rakes and shovels to clean out overgrowth and weeds at the Mann-Wagnon Memorial Park in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. It was partly a day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, but also a labor of love for the community. Residents are reclaiming a riverfront park that for nearly 20 years served as administrative headquarters for Hillsborough County's parks, recreation and conservation department. "We're trying to spruce up the place and create an awareness that we're coming," said Norma Robinson, vice-president of the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center. "I'm hoping it will give people a new perspective about Sulphur Springs."
Many people don't know the neighborhood has active springs. In the late 1800s the springs, off Nebraska Avenue, drew day-trippers from Tampa. By the1940s the area evolved into one of Florida's top tourist draws with a 40-foot water slide, a shopping arcade and the Sulphur Springs Tourist Club, now the Harbor Club. The museum will occupy one of several Florida-cracker style buildings at the park, displaying artifacts, memorabilia and oral histories on Sulphur Springs and its historically black neighborhood of Spring Hill.
Other nonprofit groups moving into the park are Community Stepping Stones, a youth art program; and Moses House, a museum displaying sculptures of the late folk artist Taft Richardson, who grew up in Spring Hill. Nearly 50 years ago Cecile Wagnon bequeathed her 2-acre riverfront homestead and three cottages to a cultural committee. A court ruled the committee legally could not own property and awarded ownership to the city of Tampa and the county. For many years the park was home to a museum that eventually became the seed for the Museum of Science and Industry. In the 1980s, to the disappointment of some residents, the county's parks and recreation department moved in. In 2008 the department moved its office to Falkenburg Road, and residents pressed city and county officials to re-open the park to the community. "A lot of people don't know the place is here," Robinson said. Longtime resident Danny Chesser ripped away vines and overgrowth, temporarily pausing to show a black snake to 10-year-old volunteers Ashley and Zach Evans. The twins came from Carrollwood with mom Sherri Evans to help with the cleanup. "This is a nice facility," Chesser said. "It would be foolish to lose this."
The Arts Council of Hillsborough County will manage the property. Each nonprofit will be responsible for providing a business plan that includes a budget and program goals. Also, each group must pay a monthly power bill. "I think they'll come on board slowly but surely," said the council's director, Art Keeble. "We just want to know they are ready to take this on." The arts council promotes development of cultural centers in communities county-wide, he said. Brandon and Carrollwood built cultural centers but that would be something financially out of reach for Sulphur Springs, Keeble said. Community Stepping Stones settled into its new home several weeks ago, moving from a Mulberry Street residence. The program recently received a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to create an avenue of the arts on River Cove Drive. Initial projects could be murals painted on the sides of the park's buildings. A separate nonprofit Seeds in the Springs will remain at the Mulberry Street house, working on its vision to promote community gardens. "We are just so thankful," said Diana Kay of Community Stepping Stones. "This is larger. It allows us to expand our program." Local children can walk to the park, but children countywide now may join, too. "You just have to have transportation here," Kay said. In the past year Sulphur Springs residents have seen: the completion of a public library, in partnership with Sulphur Springs Elementary School; the school boost its state grade rating from an F to a B; federal dollars pumped in to rehabilitate foreclosed homes; construction of a United Way-based community resource center; and funding for a future recreation center. The park is one more plus to build community spirit, said Joseph Robinson, president of the Sulphur Springs Action League. Each project is "a little corner turned" but part of a larger vision for the neighborhood, he said. "It needs a finishing touch on it to engage residents a little more, to let them know they're part of this," he said. "Now people want to take ownership. It takes a little while but we're patient."

Reporter Kathy Steele can be reached at (813) 259-7652.

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