Tampa’s West Side Story

For those of us who have been around for awhile–long enough to recall how Tampa routinely ignored its good fortune in having a river running through it–what’s been happening along the Hillsborough River in downtown is nothing short of a reincarnation. It’s as if we had seen what San Antonio had done with its well-marketed, catalytic little creek and civically said: “They’re doing all this with that? And we have an actual river? Enough is enough.”

Some propitious business cycles, a recession recovery and several pragmatically visionary mayors later, we have the magnetic Riverwalk, the booming, multi-faceted Tampa Heights area and the makeover of the re-debuted Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

The Riverfront Park, the $35-million venue that has morphed from easily ignored, nondescript, green space into a sprawling, eclectic place of note and notice, was the appropriate venue for Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s recent State of the City speech. The site was as symbolic as it was celebrated.

This 23-acre park isn’t just for visitors or millennial hipsters or chamber of commerce reps updating their PowerPoint presentations. Its appeal is to rowers and residents. To those who enjoy courts for tennis as well as basketball. For concert goers, for bocce ball players, for public art devotees, for pet owners who love dog parks. For those who love splash pads–and who doesn’t? In short, for us.

It’s a far cry from those days when the “West Bank” of the Hillsborough River meant, in effect, the “other side of the tracks.” Would-be investors looked askance at the unappealing weedy lots and looked hopefully across the Hillsborough to where the real downtown and the real development potential was.

Now Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park can be a key catalyst in stimulating development on its western side of the river. It’s hardly happenstance that the massive West River urban-renewal-development project just to the north has been jumpstarted this spring. The ultimate master plan and Buckhornian vision are to expand the footprint and synergy of downtown across the river and toward the neighborhoods of West Tampa.

“This park will stand as a testament to the commitment of this city to ensure that the rising tide of prosperity floats all boats,” inclusively noted Mayor Buckhorn at his State of the City speech.

With progress, ironically, also comes a caveat. Heads up for increased river traffic.

What with all that has changed along the downtown course of the Hillsborough, it’s inevitable that it would now be attracting ever more boaters to an ever busier river scene.

“It’s going to require a culture change,” pointed out Heather Erickson, the city’s athletics, aquatics and special facilities manager. Indeed, heightened awareness and a push to educate boaters is now underway.

And who would have thought not many years ago that a river that featured wharves and surface parking lots would now be an aesthetic catalyst for culture change and morph into a place where lots of people would want to be? Hell, who would have thought that Tampa would have an athletics, aquatics and special facilities manager?

Proposal’s Upshot

It was encouraging that the Hillsborough County Commission exercised discretion and adopted a gun-control measure that will extend the waiting period for the purchase of a firearm in the county from three to five days. The usual suspects, from Second Amendment activists to gun-store owners, protested. But to no avail. The Republican-dominated commission passed the proposal, 5-2. The media weighed in with props for the commission for doing the right thing.

Of course, it was the right thing to do. But what it says–even in these post-Parkland, post-Pulse times–is that no more than incremental progress can be expected until there’s more pressure after the next slaughter. How low is this bar of public-safety responsibility for public officials? And keep in mind that Commissioners Ken Hagan and Stacy White still couldn’t belly up to the low-caliber bar of responsible gun control. We’re not there yet. Obviously.

That Luxurious Future

A few takeaways from those stop-the-presses headlines showcasing Tampa’s future as “Soaring and Luxe.” That’s what you get when you announce that the massive downtown makeover now well underway will include, but hardly be limited to, two new Marriott hotels, one a presumed, 5-star Edition brand, plus the imminent opening of a sales center for the 50-plus story Riverwalk Place.

* From its sleek, towering design, Riverwalk Place looks more Dubai than downtown Tampa, but its mixed-use composition could be catalytic, and it would further distance the city from the days of Trump Tower Tampa buzz.

* The combination of Jeff Vinik, Bill Gates, hotelier Ian Schrager and the tandem of Feldman Equities of Tampa and Two Roads Development of South Florida amount to a Tampa vote of confidence in the multi billions.

* We all remember September’s close call with Hurricane Irma–and those ominous Bob Buckhorn quotes. Had it hit, it could have set Tampa back by decades. But that dodged bullet has not deterred investors. Tampa is still prime real estate reality. “We’re long-term owners,” underscored James Nozar, CEO of Strategic Property Partners, the development company launched by Vinik and Gates.

* Imagine all this commitment, all this investment and Tampa still lacks serious, major-metro mass transit?

Gates Still Grates

We’ve known for some time about the perilous budget status of the Hillsborough County School District. It was only made worse when lawmakers required it to add armed safety officers or “guardians” to every school campus. Then they underfunded it.

Too bad the Gates Foundation isn’t interested in helping with something that matters more than morale-depleting, peer evaluators.

River O’Tampa

The annual Mayor’s River O’Green Fest at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is now a fixture in downtown. We are the better for it. It looks like Tampa. Ethnicity and race are incidental. Everyone is a most-welcome, shanty Irish reveler. Even Boston Bruins fans. Maybe.

The weather on St. Patrick’s Day was chamber of commerce pleasant; there was a deep (biodegradable) Kelly green river; and there was live music, dancing, games, multiple beer-selling tents, goofy hats, ties, vests and T-shirts and a certain new pub with a certain thatched roof. No way that doesn’t induce Irish-ishness. The mood–and theme–were emblazoned and reinforced on countless T-shirts–ranging from distilled-spirits themes– “Arrive Thirsty; Leave Tipsy,” “Shamrocked,” “BE:ER O’Clock” and “Fit Shaced” to the less-than-innocent “Irish You Were Naked.”

Complementing the high-energy Riverwalk vibe were the picturesque backdrops of Minarets and museums. It’s a scene that couldn’t have been imagined not that long ago. Back when the Hillsborough was an industrial river with all the ambience that wharves and surface parking lots can provide. Now–and both Mayor Bob and Mayor Pam deserve particular shout outs for their catalytic roles–there is something symbolic of much more than Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s symbolic of a downtown with some serious “there” there. Gertrude O’Stein would approve.

Rays Reality

Brian Auld, the Tampa Bay Rays president and CEO, took one for the team the other day with that appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg. The “B” word was used: “betrayal.” And there was less-than-friendly fire about taxpayers helping underwrite a private business.

Auld underscored two points. First, there’s the best-case scenario that a major sports franchise can have a catalytic and synergistic impact on a community that can lead to a higher tax base–one that could fund a lot of services in the area. Second, the demographics and logistics of Tampa and St. Pete are markedly different. “Tampa is closer to the geographic center of this region,” pointed out Auld, which means, among other things, that twice as many people live and work within a 30-minute drive.

The reality that too many in St. Petersburg have too long disdained has been obvious. Tampa is both the geographical center as well as the business hub of the Tampa Bay market. And that was apparent when Major League Baseball chose Vince Naimoli and St. Petersburg over Frank Morsani and Tampa in the 1990s. It still ranks with Rick Scott turning down I-4 high-speed rail as an unconscionably short-sighted, counterproductive move for Tampa and Tampa Bay.

Ego was also involved. St. Pete’s inferiority complex kept ratcheting every time Tampa was awarded something regional, whether it was Busch Gardens, TIA, the original Rowdies or the Buccaneers.

And then there is this: Tampa Bay is an asymmetrical market without meaningful mass transit and lacking lots of corporate (season ticket-buying) headquarters. Its population is a mix of people from other places with other allegiances. There are better things to do in the summer–think: boating, golfing, playing tennis and cooling off in the Carolinas.

In other words, the one variable you can control–a stadium site–had better be pitch perfect. St. Pete–on the western fringe of the market never made sense.

Now, it’s reality check time. The last key variable, now that the Ybor City site has been agreed upon, is financing. And whether the Rays can write a big enough reality check for that “new urbanism,” roofed, “Raybor” stadium.

Amgen’s Choice

When biotech giant Amgen recently opened its $25 million Capability Center in the Westshore business district, it meant a lot locally. As in up to 450 jobs by year’s end. As in another major biopharma presence in this market–in addition to Johnson & Johnson and Bristol-Myers Squibb. But it also meant that the market had reached the point where Amgen could choose Tampa–from virtually every MSA in the country–without state or local tax incentives being involved.

Stadium Synergy

To nobody’s surprise by now, the Rays have formally announced that the team wants to build its new Tampa Bay ball park in Ybor City near downtown Tampa. “Raybor City” checks plenty of boxes. Assembled land. Actual, historic baseball (“DNA”) roots. The geographic center of a major market. The business hub of a major market. Incumbent, non-bus transit. The “new urbanism” vibe of a city’s core. Connecting Ybor to the Channel District to the Riverwalk. A Water Street Tampa complement.

Think live-work-play-stay synergy.

And yet.

Where is Jeff Vinik? His $3 billion Water Street makeover is a critical element in this location’s raison d’être for a baseball park. Is a Fortune 500 corporate-relo recruit more than enough of a priority? Are baseball’s logistics less than an ideal complement?

But there’s this unchecked box: Financing. The Rays will contribute a 9-figure amount. Will it be enough to matter for a roofed facility likely to cost north of $700 million? With no taxpayer-burden in the mix, it will need property-tax collection growth effected by the new stadium. It will need corporate support (a major chunk of all MLB season tickets are via corporations), even though this is an area hardly steeped in corporate headquarters. It will take city-county cooperation, hardly a governmental given.

It won’t be Rayboring.

Village Upgrades

* The announcement that Station House, the St. Petersburg co-working space, will be opening a second location in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village was notably well received. The revitalized–and still revitalizing–Village has an eclectic mix of retail, restaurants and bar scenes plus urban greenery and a focal-point fountain. Now 30,000 square feet will be dedicated to contemporary co-working space: in effect, the last “new urbanism” addition to complement upgraded amenities.

* Here’s another Village attraction that is much more under the radar. A bar you could feel comfortable in when you’re with your favorite date. Without deafening noise. Without Valley-girl servers. Without every wall bedecked with flat-screen TVs tuned to ESPN. It’s CineBistro.

You don’t have to go there for overpriced movies. Just hang for an hour or so in the relatively quiet, television-free lounge with an appetizer and a drink–and then watch to see if you recognize anyone answering the seating call for the latest “50 Shades” iteration.