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Latest move on historic Punta Gorda building opens up for new leaseholder

Cooper Street Rec Center has been a gathering point for six decades
Posted at 6:42 PM, Nov 15, 2023

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — After numerous concerns and motions, now the Punta Gorda City Council decided the Cooper Street Rec Center’s lease is null and void with the decision to “start over” putting out bids for a non-profit to take over. The council carried to motion with a 4-1 vote.

Yet this does not exclude rec center leaders from re-applying for a new lease again.

“This is listed, in Florida, as a historic building and to so, cavalierly, want to throw that away just on a dime without any true regard for what is good for the population but one’s own personal prejudices, it’s reprehensible,” said Jaha Cummings, who works with the Cooper Street Rec Center.

This move comes from months and debate, back-and-forth, miscommunication and even a city council member saying he’s been called a “racist” over discussions of what to do with the current lease of the rec center. The city of Punta Gorda owns the land and the building.

Several people spoke during the public comment at Wednesday’s city council meeting to save the rec center. Going back to the 1960s, the Cooper Street Rec Center has served as a gathering point for the Black community, including those early years where they may not have felt welcome at other facilities.

““This is culturally destructive and it’s a slap in the face,” said Martha Bireda, a fifth-generation Punta Gorda resident. “I hate to say this, but it’s a slap in the face to people like my mother and people who work to make Cooper Street to say that they are nothing, to say that what they did doesn’t matter, to say that they are inhumane, that is what all of this says.”

Several months ago, the city attorney was asked to look over older leases, telling the council on Wednesday that the current lease for Cooper Street is “unconstitutional”. City leaders say they asked rec center leaders to provide documents to prove the public purpose they insist it still serves.

Cooper Street Rec Center leaders say they have provided all the documents as this controversy has spilled into the public square, both in meetings and in the media. Now with the latest step to simply start over with a new lease.

Rec center leaders say, although disappointed, they do plan to re-submit their application and bid for a a new lease to save the building’s current mission.