Investigators were still trying to figure out what sparked a 3 a.m. fire Thursday at the Winston Park Rec Center on Winston Drive in Tampa.
The Tampa Boys and Girls Club was planning to move into the space when renovations were finished, thanks in part, to a $2.5 million donation from Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik earlier this year.
No one was killed in the fire. No one was hurt.
But the fire has left neighbors emotionally devastated.
And if you speak with the people who live in this community. People like Jose Rivera, they will tell you they lost much more than brick-and-mortar here this morning. They lost the heart and soul of this community.
“I've lived here since I was about 12 years old. So about 23 years living in this community,” said Jose Rivera, who grew up in Tampa’s Clair-Mel neighborhood. “A lot of memories growing up, yeah. It's something that you wish and hope you would not see. But it's sad something like this could happen. You know?”
It took 35 firefighters a little more than an hour to knock down the blaze. The building is a total loss.
Rivera describes the rec center as the heart of the close-knit neighborhood.
“This is sad, because you know, the kids in the community. You know? They need something like this. You know? Clair-Mel City -- a lot of the kids think a lot of people have forgotten about them,” he said.
At one point, Hillsborough County was considering closing the rec center, but Vinik stepped in and the Tampa Boys and Girls Club said it would move-in – breathing new life into the building.
“Something like this will give them hope. That there’s something to look forward to, you know? Especially with someone like the owners of the Lightning coming in here and investing in our community. That's huge. This is the heartbeat of our community here,” said Rivera.
Now, Rivera and his neighbors are worried about what will happen to the kids when school lets out during school breaks.
“It's just sad because it is something that these kids need for their spare time. You know, instead of idle hands. You know, there's nothing worse than I don't hands, you know? Put something in their hands. A basketball. A motivational speaker that can come in here and speak to these kids and see that there are people that you care outside of the community. To come and help them. And this, this is basically hope. It gives the community hope that for a better future,” said Rivera.
Investigators were still trying to figure out what sparked the fire. The building itself was fully insured. But whether or not they will replace the rec center, itself has yet to be determined.
“I pray that they come back in here and rebuild. I hope it touches somebody's heart to where they feel like they can come in here and do something to help the situation, you know?” said Rivera. “It’s just heart-wrenching to see something like this. It's just sad. It's sad.”
The Tampa Boys and Girls Club, which was scheduled to move into the rec center when renovations were completed issued a statement saying they were saddened to find out what had happened. But that they hope the fire won’t deter their efforts once the investigation has concluded.
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