County asks GNV to reconsider Thelma Boltin Center 

The Gainesville City Commission voted Thursday to tear down and replace the 80-year-old Thelma Boltin Center.
The 80-year-old Thelma Boltin Center in Gainesville.
Courtesy city of Gainesville

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) requested last week that the Gainesville City Commission reconsider its current direction on the Thelma Boltin Center, but Mayor Harvey Ward said on Friday that he doesn’t think anything will change.  

The unanimous vote, with BOCC Chair Anna Prizzia absent, asked the city to consider a complete restoration approach to the 80-year-old historic building. The city decided on a partial restoration path last year, but opponents say the plan will destroy the historical integrity and potentially cost the same as a complete restoration.  

County Commissioner Ken Cornell said the county has had a lot of community outreach on the project, prompting the addition of the item to the agenda.  

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“If you’ve already done all the evaluation and you don’t want to evaluate it anymore, that’s up to y’all,” Cornell said.  

Cornell started by advocating for a temporary solution to get the building usable again without demolition. He said more residents seem in favor of that option.  

Ken Cornell
Courtesy of Alachua County Ken Cornell

The partial restoration option selected by the city would keep two walls while rebuilding the rest of the center to match. Recently, the Florida Historic Trust placed the Thelma Boltin Center on its “11 to Save” list.  

However, by the end of the discussion, he advocated for the full restoration, noting that the price might be lower than the partial restoration depending on what contractors find behind the walls.  

In an interview, Ward said the City Commission has thoroughly considered the project, with two unanimous decisions. Even without a county request, Ward said the city would have the opportunity to reconsider at the next vote to move forward with the design stage.  

“It’s a building that a lot of people have nostalgia for because it’s been here for 80 years and was the center of lots of happy times for a lot of people,” Ward said. “I absolutely get that. My first swearing in was in Thelma Boltin; I care about the building.” 

But, he said the city must also care about the 2023 functionality of the building along with the functionality in 20 and 40 years as Gainesville continues growing.  

The partial restoration would expand the footprint to allow more programming space. The plan would also add backstage space for productions. 

At last week’s meeting, City Commissioner Bryan Eastman said the commission believed the partial restoration to be a good compromise between a full restoration and a “band-aid” approach. City Commissioner Casey Willits added that the building could use more functionality.  

“I think we need more out of the building than merely preserving the past, and that’s what led me, definitely, where I was at,” Willits said.  

Eastman asked the county not to vote on the city matter. He said it would also be easy for the city to question county votes, like Dogwood Village or the meat processing center, causing flurries of emails and digging up past votes.  

City Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and Ed Book said they had no problem with the county bringing up votes that impact their constituents as well, and Cornell said he’d want the city to do the same if the community reaches out like it has on the Thelma Boltin issue.  

Book said if the county helped with Wild Spaces Public Places funding to cover potential higher costs of the full restoration, the City Commission would likely be willing to reevaluate the item. The contractor’s estimate for the full restoration ranged from high $4 million to $6.2 million. 

Ed Book
Courtesy of City of Gainesville Ed Book

Cornell and county Commissioner Mary Alford said if the city went for the full restoration, the board would consider applying funds. Cornell also said community groups, like a Friends of the Thelma Boltin Center, could work to gather funding as well.  

Melanie Barr has spoken before both commissions in the past on the Thelma Boltin Center and advocated for a full restoration. She said community members would step up to support the restored center.  

In an interview, Barr said the city should pay the cost of a full restoration. She said the city should never have let the building enter a state of disrepair after the last renovation in 1999.  

“It’s a demolition by neglect,” Barr said. “They want to have their way. They want the building gone. They want a new, bigger building, but I haven’t heard any citizen say they want a new, bigger building.” 

Barr has collected around 100 emails for a Friends of the Thelma Boltin Center group.  

She said the half a million “band-aid” option would be preferable to the partial restoration that removes the historicity of the building.  

“I don’t want to see everything torn down except for two walls,” Barr said. “I don’t want to see the wing torn down. Because the wing, even though it’s very plain, it’s not an architectural beauty, it has the most historical significance.” 

The next step on the Thelma Boltin Center was scheduled to be on the consent agenda Thursday. The item would have asked to move forward with design work on the partial restoration. Now, the item has been moved and may appear on the Sept. 21 meeting agenda.  

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Kilgore Trout

What is the history of this building and what is it used for today? I think that the cost for either partial or full restoration seems too high. The money should be used to help all of the citizens of Gainesville, especially now that they have raised our taxes so much and GRU rates continue to soar.

Is it possible in light of the City’s current financial predicament to postpone any restoration at all?

Accurate Comment

This project does not use any City of Gainesville funds. It is funded entirely by Wild Spaces Public Places taxes that everyone who owns property in Alachua County pays.