Tallevast feels locked out of their own community center
A series of questionable developments at the Tallevast Community Center has left residents scratching their heads and demanding transparency from those in charge.
The doors are locked, the playground has been torn down and security cameras keep a watchful eye over the building at 7727 17th St. Ct. E. No one told the residents that the recreational space had been renamed to the Centers for Success.
A link to a private catering business run by the center’s chief official is prominently displayed on the Centers for Success website. Residents suspect the facility is used to host events at no cost to the owner.
What the community built as a dedicated location for events doesn’t feel that way anymore, residents told the Bradenton Herald.
“Last Saturday I realized the gate was locked,” said Debra Smith-Coleman, who is seeking accountability from the Centers for Success board of directors. “It’s been in the community since 1966 and there’s never been a lock there, so I started asking questions.”
The center, neighbors say, is a shell of what it once was. The fence is adorned with no trespassing signs and residents don’t have access to the space on the weekends. The center is open from 2 to 6 p.m. on weekdays for an after-school service.
Even though the community center has a funding contract with Manatee County, there’s not much that officials can do to step in on behalf of the residents, according to County Administrator Cheri Coryea. Centers For Success does receive money for childcare programs, but the contract doesn’t require that the space be open to the public.
“We could send them a note that says it’s been brought to our attention that the community is concerned about access and ask them to look into it,” Coryea said.
Residents said they understood the need for the building to be locked outside of business hours but continue to seek access to the basketball court and hope to see a new playground installed. Smith-Coleman explained that the Tallevast community has been left out of discussions regarding the community center, and suspects the board chairwoman Melissa Robinson intends to keep it that way.
Robinson did not to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Cynthia Howard, a Tallevast native and former Tallevast Community Center board member, told the Bradenton Herald that the building was originally meant as a “community asset” to be used by the public and the recent changes fly in the face of that purpose.
“It was built by the community, for the community,” she said. “I don’t even know if there is a board now. That’s the main concern. There are no meetings and no minutes. No paper trail. Nothing.”
Residents have tried to take matters into their own hands by getting involved with the center and reaching out to be considered as new members of the board. None of their inquiries received a response, they said.
“I think that what she’s doing is all calculated,” said Smith-Coleman. “It seems to me that she has literally stolen the physical building from us by not letting us in and changing the name.”
More than 60 people feel the same way, and have signed a petition asking for Robinson and other board members to address their concerns about the public space. Locking the community out of the center is a stark difference from the days when residents of the historically black neighborhood frequently enjoyed each other’s company in the space.
“I’d love to see the members of the community have access again,” said Corretta Williams, 63. “We need those meetings and the fellowship to keep the community in touch with each other, to mingle and sit down and enjoy a meal with each other. That’s what we used to do.”
While residents are kept out of the building, they allege that Robinson uses the space for her event planning company, Red Drop LLC, for birthday parties, wedding receptions and other celebrations. Under the “Be Involved” section of the community center’s website is a link to Robinson’s Red Drop Events website. Smith-Coleman said some of the website photos show Robinson preparing events at the center.
“Is that ethical to hold events there for her own personal gain?” Smith-Coleman asked.
The Tallevast community is located on the east side of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, south of Tallevast Road. Residents were notably involved in a pollution lawsuit involving Lockheed Martin’s old beryllium plant.
A provided copy of the board’s bylaws state that the directors must meet monthly and that community meetings must be held “from time to time,” but neighbors don’t know when or where those meetings are held.
“When you try to get answers from Melissa, she won’t even give you the decency to speak with you,” Tallevast resident Alishia Albritton said. “She doesn’t answer anything.”
“We tried to do it the nice way by talking to her and it seems like it’s not going to happen,” Flora Bryant, another Tallevast resident, added.
A dated sign marked the name of the Tallevast Community Center, but residents were shocked to see banners go up around the fence that proclaimed it to be the Centers for Success. State records reveal that Robinson submitted a request to change the name of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit in May 2018.
“There’s a reason they’re not letting anyone know why and we want to know what it is,” said Casey Baker, who grew up in Tallevast.
Critics have also accused Robinson of nepotism, claiming that she only picks friends and family members to serve as board members. Robinson’s husband Morris is listed as the Centers For Success’ treasurer.
Smith-Coleman says she hopes to organize a protest to demand answers from community center officials.
“We’re going to keep applying pressure and something has to happen,” Albritton said.