Tampa City Council member Luis Viera (left) and Tampa Palms resident Tracy Falkowitz, who led the effort to get funding for the New Tampa Rec Center expansion approved, are assisted by some of the facility’s preschool kids at the expansion’s Apr. 12 groundbreaking. (Photo: John C. Cotey)

When the official groundbreaking for the expansion of the New Tampa Recreation Center (NTRC) was held on April 12, and a gaggle of local dignitaries and preschoolers dressed as construction workers wearing pink hard hats sent shovelfuls of dirt flying through the air, there was probably no one happier than Heather Erickson.

For the City of Tampa’s manager of aquatics, athletics and special facilities, the 7,285-sq.-ft. expansion of the NTRC is a long-awaited dream come true.

As the gatekeeper of the city’s immensely popular and successful gymnastics and dance programs, which currently includes more than 1,200 students at NTRC, Erickson has had to delay the enrollment of more children than she’d care to remember.

The expansion, however, should allow Erickson to admit roughly 300 additional kids into NTRC programs.

“We’re pretty happy,” Erickson said. “This is going to let us do even more than we already do.”

Those attending the groundbreaking included outgoing Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (in perhaps his final official act as mayor), City Council members Luis Viera, Mike Suarez, Harry Cohen and Guido Maniscalco and Tampa Palms resident and activist Tracy Falkowitz.

All offered praise for the results the gymnastics and dance programs have produced, and noted the long road to getting the NTRC expanded.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. gets a helping hand at the NTRC groundbreaking. (Photo: John C. Cotey)

Buckhorn, who leaves office in a few weeks, acknowledged the struggle finding the full amount needed — $2.6 million in all — for the project in the years following the 2008 recession.

Viera and Falkowitz, along with others in the New Tampa community, however, worked doggedly together to finally convince the city to put — and keep — the rec center expansion in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

“Thanks, particularly to the advocacy of Luis Viera, who was relentless,” Buckhorn said. “He was like a pitbull on my leg to make sure New Tampa was going to be taken care of. And, Tracy was absolutely right, that this journey had gone on too long, and the demands were too great and the quality of the programming was too superb that (why) shouldn’t and couldn’t we expand this to give more kids the opportunity to enjoy the amazing mentorship of our Parks & Recreation, and give New Tampa the amenity that it so rightly deserved. We got it through.”

The NTRC expansion is expected to be completed by February of 2020,  which is good news for many on the waiting list of 1,400 — 960 waiting to get into gymnastics, the rest waiting to get into the center’s dance programs.

There are three basic components of the expansion, the first of which is adding a room specifically for children ages 5 and under, who currently share space with older kids in the 12,500-sq.-ft. gymnastics area.

By giving them their own 50’ x 40’ room, it allows for more older students to be added to the program, and also provides more of a focus on the younger pre-schoolers.

Another 50’ x 40’ all-purpose room for dance also will be added.

And lastly, the expansion will include a 1,760-sq.-ft. “training box,” which will offer a wealth of possible training exercises for a variety of sports, like retractable batting cages, and offer small group fitness classes. The new addition to the NTRC also will have more windows so parents and family can watch the gymnastics and dance programs, as well as six new bathrooms.

One of the bathrooms will even have an electromagnetic lock, so it can be open on the weekends for those using the outdoor areas when the NTRC is closed.

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