Time, termites and structural inadequacies have forced the Gainesville City Commission to pivot from renovating the Thelma A. Boltin Center to replacing the 80-year-old facility.
Built in 1942 as a USO club catering to troops, the city post-war converted the building on Northeast 2nd Avenue into a multipurpose facility. The center has provided space for senior activities on weekdays and is an affordable space to rent out for community meetings and events.
In 2019, the city earmarked $2 million from the Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) half-cent sales tax to renovate the center. But that redesign project was put on hold in December 2020 when an apparent structural failure was found in the roof of the center’s auditorium, said Betsy Waite, the city’s WSPP director.
A structural engineering firm assessed the building and recommended in October 2021 that the auditorium of the building be torn down and replaced at minimum. The report also said demolition and replacement of the whole building would likely be more cost efficient.
“There are options out there, and none of them can take place until we agree this space is no longer safe or functional,” Mayor Lauren Poe said.
Waite said 1942’s construction standards, including hollow block walls, an undersized foundation, and timbers that shrank and cracked in the heat of the roof, made the structure difficult and expensive to renovate. Delays on replacing the facility’s roof and years of termite damage have also taken a toll on the center.
The city is currently paying a contractor $5,000 a month to keep the roof shored so it doesn’t collapse, Waite said.
During Thursday’s General Policy Committee meeting, the commission voted 6-0 to replace the whole building with one that serves similar needs in the community.
“The reality is … if we were going to fix this, we should have done this 25 years ago,” Commissioner Harvey Ward said. “Sometimes you can fix it, and sometimes you let it go too far. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t meet the needs of 2022 Gainesville even if the building was in great shape.”
Replacing the facility is expected to cost around $3 million, Waite said. The commission also voted to stay with the design firm initially hired for the renovation, and asked the Historic Preservation Board to discuss design parameters at that board’s next meeting.
“Clearly this facility has gone from an amenity to a liability,” Poe said. “We’ve got to do something, and we’ve got to do it very soon. We’re putting ourselves at risk by delaying it any further.”
Waite started what she described as the “tough conversation” about the Thelma Boltin Center during an WSPP update to the commission.
At the end of the presentation, the commissioners also asked Waite to develop a cost estimate for putting up lights at the city-owned Possum Creek skate park on Northwest 53rd Avenue.
Lights at the park are not currently on the 2022 list of WSPP projects, but the city has had several requests to put up additional lighting so the park, which closes at dusk, could be used after dark.
“We do need to light Possum Creek,” Poe said. “We’ve got to provide safe spaces for people to use after daylight hours…. especially in non-summer months.”