The Gainesville City Commission unanimously voted Thursday to spend $5.6 million on a partial restoration of the Thelma A. Boltin Activity Center, a historic recreation center in downtown Gainesville.
The building was originally established in 1943 as an entertainment center for soldiers during World War II. After the war, it was repurposed as a community recreation center. It remained open until 2020, when it was closed due to structural damage.
The commission considered four options during the meeting: a $5.6 million complete replacement of the building, a $5.4 million complete restoration, a $450,000 basic repair and the $5.6 million partial restoration that was ultimately chosen.
The funding will come from Alachua County’s Wild Spaces and Public Places surtax. Concerns raised by the commission while choosing the partial restoration instead of the complete restoration were the possibility that the project could cut into other projects funded by the tax, and whether the full restoration could potentially rise in cost to over $6 million.
The commission chamber was crowded with dozens of community members who came to advocate for the center’s restoration. Over a dozen spoke during public comment urging the commission to take the full measures available to restore the center.
Historic preservation consultant Melanie Barr was one of the speakers. She said that the partial restoration would leave out the building’s most historically significant aspect: the wing where soldiers would first arrive at the center during the war.
“It was built for the soldiers that hitchhiked here from Camp Blanding, or across the state, including Jacksonville, Orlando, Lake City, and they came here and they saw the wing first,” said Barr. “This is where they felt ‘finally I’ve reached a home.’”
“They had a stationery, they had payphones that they could call home with,” said Barr. “They had a fireplace in the back that they could have parties around. That’s all going to be destroyed.”
Musician Daniel Peterson was the first to speak during public comment. Peterson, a member of the Gainesville Orchestra, has performed at the center since the 1980s. He said that while he wishes the commission had chosen full restoration, he believes the partial restoration is a good compromise.
“I’m a bit torn as well,” said Peterson. “I mean, I’m also a historic preservationist, and I love to see things static. But things can’t really remain static.”
“However, we do have historical buildings and I’ve seen too many of them razed and developers take over, which is very unfortunate,” said Peterson. “We can’t have that either. So I guess, you know, you need to compromise and this compromise would be, I think, the best thing for us.”
During the meeting, seven senior city staff members spoke about the project. Mayor Harvey Ward said this is unusual and shows the city’s passion for the project.
“Not just passionate about, but the level of care,” said Ward. “That and the level of resources that the city of Gainesville is already committed to this project.”
“It’s not just about the dollar figures,” said Ward. “It’s that we had seven senior staff members involved already, which means there were a lot more than seven who have been working on it. We had seven speak on the project. That doesn’t happen regularly.”