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Collectors bring cheer to Pinecrest Place
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Tampa Bay 56ers George Pagnotta points out some of the detail of the display at Pinecrest Place.
The 38-building display at Pinecrest Place in Largo is designed to represent the oldtime streets in New York City.
LARGO – The Christmas season is a special time for the Tampa Bay 56ers.

The group of about 60 members, who share the common interest of collecting and displaying Department 56 villages, buildings and accessories, meet throughout the year. But their activities culminate in December.

“Most people that are in this club are very excited when Christmastime comes, because they’re all Christmas-type people,” Denis Gillen said. “They see someone else having a good time and it makes them feel good too.”

For the last four years, seven of the Pinellas County-based members take on the task of setting up a display off the main lobby of Pinecrest Place, an independent living, assisted living and memory care facility in Largo.

“This is our charity work for the community … to come to communities like this and give back something to the people who can’t get out,” Gillen said. “We get nothing but positive feedback from all the people who come in here.”

The village is part of the festive atmosphere of Pinecrest’s main lobby, which also is filled with Christmas trees. It speaks to the tradition of many of the residents.

“It seems like the age of most of these people, they grew up with villages under their trees and trains,” said Marcia Pagnotta. “When we start to put it up, they’re very excited to have their childhood brought back to the surface again.”

The Tampa Bay 56ers was first charted on Sept. 11, 1993. When the club began coming up with ways to give back several years ago, they played Santa Claus for a family of children whose parents were in jail and who were being cared for by their grandmother. Another year, they collected donations for Toys for Tots, giving $1,500 of bicycles one year and $1,000 the next.

That was before the club recognized that giving back could involve what they already did best: setting up villages throughout Tampa Bay.

“We decided we could put our efforts into this and reach more people and make more people happy. So that’s what our object has been,” explained Conrad Karause.

Aside from the village at Pinecrest, the group sets up a village in Hillsborough, one in Sarasota and another in Pasco. They have a children-friendly North Pole village at the Ronald McDonald House in St. Petersburg, and one at the Safety Harbor library.

“For each village, there’s a different group that does it,” explained Joyce Gillen.

“They put their own spin on it,” her husband, Denis, added.

In former years, the group of retirees have set up the villages at Pinecrest using pieces from the Dickens Village series and the Original Snow Village. This is the first year they’ve used the Christmas in the City series. It’s a more complicated setup, they explained.

“When you do Christmas in the City, you got to do sidewalks, you got to do street lamps,” Denis Gillen explained. “We had to think this one out.”

It took about four days to finish the project this year. Many residents of Pinecrest take special interest in the display and come to watch the progress each day.

Toward the end of the project, Joyce Gillen set up her sewing machine on the floor to finish the skirt around the table. One of the residents came in and sat down on the floor to help her.

“She was really nice,” Joyce Gillen said. “They enjoy it.”

The display features some iconic and expensive pieces: The Times Tower, complete with the Times Square Ball, the Empire State Building and, newly released this year: the Chrysler Building, priced at $250.

“We’ve got some money invested in these things,” Karause said.

The 56ers’ biggest expense isn’t the pieces themselves, however, but the cost of storing the ones they own as a club. The club rents storage to house the shelves of buildings and accessories as well as the miniature trees, tables and plexiglass at the cost of $1,700 to $1,800 annually.

“It’s starting to create a drain on finances,” Denis Gillen said. “It’s a concern with us of how we’re going to pay for storage.”

The club used to raise money by helping out at Raymond James Stadium, but no longer has that opportunity. They’ve been paying storage fees from those dwindling funds.

The club has had requests for more villages, but can only do so many, Denis Gillen said.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can, but it also depends on how many members we have and how many resources we have,” he explained.

The club often accepts donations of buildings and accessories from the community, sometimes when people move or downsize or pass away and their surviving relatives don’t know what to do with the buildings.

“If you donate to us, we will be sharing it with other people,” Denis Gillen said. “They just aren’t going to be forgotten. They’re gonna still continue to bring happiness to somebody.”

To view the Christmas in the City display, visit Pinecrest Place at 1150 Eighth Ave. SW., in Largo. Call 581-8142.
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