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?