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Combination magnet school, YMCA breaks ground

Mark Parker



Representing just the second partnership of its kind in Florida, Pinellas County Schools (PCS) and the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg have officially broken ground on a health and wellness leadership magnet school.

Tuesday’s ceremony represented the first step in the transformation process for 19 acres of vacant property in north St. Pete. Located off 62nd Avenue NE and Pershing Street NE, the site has laid dormant for nearly 15 years since the old Riviera Middle School closed in 2008.

The grass and weeds will soon give way to a 111,757 square-foot complex which includes a magnet middle school for 600 students and a state-of-the-art YMCA facility. Clint Herbic, associate superintendent of operational services for PCS, told a large crowd of what he called “the movers and shakers of St. Petersburg” that the dream to construct a joint middle school and YMCA was born at the very spot in 2015.

“Today marks the first step in the final leg of the journey that will transform this school district, the YMCA and this neighborhood,” said Herbic. “And St. Petersburg.”

Herbic said the school district received “countless offers” from people hoping to purchase the vacant land over the last 15 years, and he politely declined them all. David Jezek, president and CEO of the YMCA of greater St. Petersburg, approached PCS with a plan for a joint school and YMCA in 2015.

The joint venture, said Herbic, allows the two organizations to leverage funding and build a facility that neither could create alone. He added that it takes strong leadership to encourage creativity and foster bold ideas, exemplified by the YMCA’s board of directors.

Billy Greene, chair of the YMCA’s board, said the ceremony was not just a celebration of two great local institutions but also of the future of St. Petersburg.

“And all the possibilities when educational, philanthropic and community organizations team up to best serve the community,” said Greene. “I hope other organizations are taking notice of what can be achieved when you collaborate and work together to put the needs of the community first.”

Dr. Michael Grego, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, said he is thrilled to break ground on a cutting-edge partnership middle school. St. Petersburg City Councilmember Brandi Gabbard, who represents the district, looks on.

St. Petersburg City Council Vice Chair Brandi Gabbard, whose District 2 encompasses the future of home of the magnet school and YMCA, called the collaborative project the best public-private partnership the city has seen in a long time.

As a mother of a son heading into middle school this fall, Gabbard said, she knows firsthand the community’s need for the project as parents usher their children into one of the most challenging and formative times in their life. She added that the resources provided by the facility will prove invaluable to its neighbors, and “healthy communities are more vibrant communities.”

PCS will incorporate the health and wellness leadership theme through all of the middle school’s curriculum. Students will also participate in a Capstone experience where they apply what they learned to develop a solution or action plan that addresses a community need or problem.

The school includes 15 classrooms, an art room, family science lab, TV lab, music room and four exceptional student education (ESE) classrooms.

“I am confident that this will serve as a flagship for how we move forward in the future in a fast-growing city,” said Gabbard. “And how we will serve as an example to other communities of how working together makes progress move forward.”

Gabbard noted that change is sometimes difficult and commended residents for passionately fighting to ensure the development coincides with the area’s tranquility. She said the one thing everyone involved shared in common was realizing that the neighborhood desperately needed the community asset.

“That day that we gave that final approval at city council is one of those rare days when everybody won,” she added. “It gave me great pride to see that level of collaboration and involvement play out so perfectly, and right here in the district that I love so much.”

The YMCA will feature a fitness center with cardio and strength equipment, three group exercise studios, a childcare center, a lap pool, a splash pad and a playground. Both facilities will share a media center, dining hall, gymnasium, science lab, sports field and garden.

Jezek announced his organization is naming its building the Speer YMCA in honor of the Speer Foundation’s significant contributions.

A rendering of the proposed YMCA and middle school. All images: City of St.Petersburg documents/Harvard Jolly Architecture

“Their support has deep roots with our YMCA … and they were instrumental in allowing us to open the Speer YMCA Preschool Academy in South St. Pete,” said Jezek. “You’re among the first to hear the news – thrilling news – that the Speer Foundation has once again invested in our YMCA and invested in our community.”

Lisa Speer Vickers, speaking on behalf of the foundation, said her family has a special interest in the neighborhood, having raised her children just down the street from the site.

“We know firsthand how special of a place this is to live and raise a family,” said Vickers. “Neighbors of all ages will benefit from the excellence in learning and programming that will be found here every day.

“My family and I are confident that you will be very conscientious stewards of what promises to be a precious resource for generations to come.”

Construction on the project will begin immediately, with St. Pete-based Wannemacher Jensen and Harvard Jolly serving as the joint architects. Creative Contractors will oversee the building process.

Officials expect the YMCA to open by the end of 2023, with the school opening at the start of the 2024-2025 school year. PCS will name the school ahead of its opening date.


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