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In Seminole, recreation is about more than sports or exercise

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Seminole Digital DenSeminole has opened its “Digital Den,” a state-of-the-art digital arts studio that’s the first of its kind in a municipal recreation setting.

The studio, which opened Monday, is designed to appeal to kids who might be more interested in art and technology than in sports or exercise.

The studio is the brainchild of Mark Ely, the city’s community development director. Not only did Ely come up with the concept, but he also funded the studio out-of-pocket. Thus far, he’s put between $90,000 and $100,000 of his own money into the studio, and there’s more to come once the studio starts functioning full-time and the city discovers what, if anything, is needed to fill any “holes” in the offerings.

“Mark not only opened up his wallet, he opened up his heart to this project,” Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters said. She called Ely “visionary” and said the studio is the first of its kind in a municipal setting. Similar high-tech digital arts centers can be found at universities, she said.

Waters agreed the studio would likely lure in kids — and adults — who normally don’t hang out at rec centers.

“Not every kid wants to be out there on the basketball court,” she said.

Kids who don’t want to be on the court, or who want to take a break from the court, will find lots to do in the studio. It houses ten iMac computers with creative software that provides users the full ability to paint, sculpt, illustrate, do graphic design, create animation and comics, and do two- and three-dimensional modeling. Users are also able to create music, movies, books, and games.

There’s also a partnership with the Digital Arts Program at St. Petersburg College’s Seminole campus. The partnership is designed to foster student interns who will help supervise the Digital Den and teach classes there.

“The likelihood that you’re going to outgrow this program means you’re in Hollywood making movies,” Seminole recreation director Becky Gunter said.

Her job, she said, is to create digital arts-based recreation programs for kids and adults. The target user, she said, is anyone from elementary school on up.

Ely, 56, said he got the idea while in Rio de Janeiro about three years ago. He was watching a television show about a rural Brazilian community that was scavenging old computers to put together a community computer center. His imagination took off.

He began doing research about computers and the arts and how to set up a digital arts studio at the city’s recreation center and found that what he envisioned just “doesn’t exist.” So he created it. He spent two years learning about digital arts, then began buying components of the system.

After he’d gotten in a few pieces that he was storing in his city office, Ely went to then-City Manager Frank Edmunds to tell him about the idea. Edmunds asked him what Ely would have done had the idea been nixed.

“I said I’d have nieces and nephews who’d be really happy kids,” Ely said.

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