Lori Rosso and I arrived in Gulfport at about the same time. I'd taken a job writing for the Gulfport weekly and she'd agreed to serve as president of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce. One of my first assignments? Introduce her to Gulfport. Rosso, fresh from a fast-paced, high-pressure job in DC, had bought the Seabreeze Manor bed and breakfast. We met in the Manor’s living room overlooking Boca Ciega Bay and talked about life by the sea. Everything about her suggested the move to the sleepy town symbolized a gigantic downshift, and while she never said so, I always wondered how long she’d last in our watery bucolic town before her intensity — over the next decade, sometimes I could almost see it pulsing beneath her skin — burst forth.
In the 13 years it took for that to happen, Rosso transformed Gulfport’s economy and lured a new breed of business to town. Today, the Lori Rosso of Ybor City is the Lori Rosso I glimpsed in Gulfport: a woman whose brain races with strategies and can juggle multiple game plans.
Now executive director of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, Rosso doesn’t deny the change.
“I am so energized. It’s from the inside out,” she says.
The move from Gulfport, which has zero nightclubs and exactly three bars, represents more than a geographic change. Gulfportians historically don’t like to head north of St. Pete’s Central Avenue. Her parents live across the bay; her business remains in Gulfport. She has many friends there. But those few miles may as well be an ocean.
Which makes Ybor City perfect for her.
“The watershed moment for me was, I was sitting in the Visitor Information Center and they were playing the instructional videos about the history of Ybor, and I literally felt my stomach drop,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m having trauma about moving from county to county; these people were moving their lives, from Italy, from Cuba, from Spain, from Germany.’ It was an ‘Oh, my God’ moment. I was shaking with the weight of it all.”
As a second-generation Italian American, Rosso feels embraced by Ybor’s Italian culture, a rarity in the Sunshine State. No one ever made her feel like an outsider in Gulfport, where anything goes but intolerance, but she wasn’t sure what to expect in Ybor.
“I felt coming in here I was going to be treated as an outsider. I have been embraced wholeheartedly,” she says. She joined the Italian Club and, after moving to Ybor, became a regular.
“Everybody here is very proud of the fact that they are generations of Yborian; they are Italian, they are Cuban, they are German, they are Spanish,” she says. “They stick to their heritage and their traditions and they’re proud of it, but they’re also very proud, equally, of being Americans, and from Ybor. They’re happy that their ancestors came here and achieved what they did, and they were only able to achieve it because they were here.”
Rosso understands Ybor’s strong cultural and historical components set it apart and intends to use it as a marketing tool.
“I’m trying it to bring it to the fore; I think it kind of got trampled a little bit because of the success of the nightlife here, and it’s always been here. It’s just been kind of subdued, and I want to spotlight it,” she says. “There’s more to do in Ybor than eat or go to a club or get a tattoo or get a cigar. We’re painted with a brush that all we do is have nightclubs and are a party district. That’s not all we have to offer; we’ve got these great cultural opportunities with the Italian Club and the Cuban Club, and the programs they put on as well at the musuem.”
Rosso’s spent time learning every strata of the neighborhood, from the daytime businesses to the bars closing in the early morning hours. She meets cruise ships at the port with Ybor brochures, one of the only times she leaves the district. She laments the other reason she leaves: for groceries. She bemoans Ybor’s paucity of sundries: “Try to find a [greeting] card in Ybor. I challenge you.”
She doesn’t want a Publix, but she wouldn’t mind luring a small market like Channelside’s Duckweed Urban Grocery.
“My goal is to just continue the vibrancy of the businesses here, and if possible, to bring more retail business here,” she says. We end our meeting as an iridescent rooster approaches Rosso and tantalizes her with his silky comb and persistent call. I know how she feels: Days after she accepted her post in Ybor, I took a job here, too. The neighborhood, like the roosters, seduces you. Rosso has no regrets.
“I’m given the opportunity to have a footprint here,” Rosso says. “I’m meant to be here for a reason.”