A Tale of Two Projects

The best of coverage; the worst of coverage

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One development project could change thousands of lives, create hundreds of jobs, revitalize an urban-core neighborhood and provide housing most anyone could afford. The 60-100 homes would start at $110,000.

The other is unattainable to all but the wealthiest in our community, those able to pay as much as $6 million for a view of Tampa from 52 stories up. The 190 condo units start at $700,000, with most listing out at $1-2 million.

Both projects remain speculative at this point. Both involve principals who are well known to local newspaper readers. Both would mark great improvements in their respective neighborhoods, the first in West Tampa and the second in downtown.

Which one do you spend the most ink writing about if you are one of Tampa Bay's two daily newspapers? Did I mention that the second project comes attached with the name of that most overexposed celebrity, Donald Trump?

If you guessed Trump gets the nod, you are right. In a town absolutely giddy about the arrival of The Donald, it is no surprise that mainstream media coverage reflects the community's lightheadedness on the subject.

The news stories about Trump and his Trump Tower Tampa show the power of celebrity to overwhelm the desire of journalists, even those committed to the so-called civic journalism model, to do good for the community as a whole, and especially for those who are less fortunate.

Since Jan. 1, Donald Trump's name has appeared in 68 articles in the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times, mostly in connection with the tower condo project and his top-rated NBC reality show, The Apprentice. Twenty-eight were about the condo project; 16 were about The Apprentice. The rest concerned his marriage to a Slovenian model, his casinos' bankruptcy filing or various other mentions that come with being an icon.

Articles mentioning Trump in any way, shape or form account for almost 50,000 words of news coverage, according to the Lexis-Nexis database. Seven stories made it onto 1A. Six of those were about Trump Tower Tampa; one was about The Apprentice.

There have been just two stories about Ed Turanchik's West Tampa project, exactly the same number of letters to the editors published about the Trump project. And far from 1A, Turanchik's project landed in the Tribune's MoneySense section, hidden in plain sight.

It's Friday morning. On Main Street in West Tampa, that means the West Fortune Street Fish Market is cooking up seafood gumbo to go. Friday is the only day you can get it.Around these parts, Donald Trump is not such a big attraction. His downtown condo project is practically unheard of by the folks who come and go in the grocery stores, ethnic markets, barbershops and other retail establishments on this formerly thriving thoroughfare.

West Tampa is a functioning African-American and Hispanic neighborhood, still filled with some of the cigar factory worker families who left Ybor City from the turn of the century to 1925 for what were then the suburbs. Main Street (now also called Moses White Boulevard) was the center of commerce and social life in the 1930s, with crowded nightclubs eager to serve the growing population. It was a self-contained working-class town, with 11 brick cigar factories and Centro Español as its mutual aid society. In 1912, West Tampa was Florida's fifth-largest city, with a population of more than 10,000.

The neighborhood's vibrancy ended as the cigar industry died, workers moved to out to farther suburbs and interstate construction in the 1970s cut West Tampa in half.

Today, West Tampa is a mix of middle-class and low-income housing, mom-and-pop businesses and crime. There are 1,287 houses of historic interest in the 77-block area that is the West Tampa historic district, roughly from North A and North B Streets on the south to Tampa Bay Boulevard on the north; from MacDill and Habana Avenues on the west to Rome and North Boulevard on the east.

Some parts of the neighborhood are in disrepair, but Main Street remains a vital link for those who need to visit one of its many barber shops, numerous small groceries or the fish market. Unlike the sales launch for Donald Trump's tower, which featured a society party and opportunities for journalists to fawn over the king of real estate in orchestrated one-on-one interviews, there is little glitz or glamour in West Tampa.

At Nathaniel Foster's barbershop, they wait alone or with their children to get a haircut from the man who has been cutting many of their heads for their entire lives. Foster knows there are changes coming to West Tampa; he just doesn't know what they will bring. Trump isn't in the equation.

"We don't get much representation on things that happen down here," Foster said as he cut one man's hair. "We don't know it until it's over." He'd like to see more businesses and more banks coming in willing to lend money for new commercial buildings.

It is two streets north of this shop - on Chestnut, Spruce and Walnut streets - that Turanchik, a former county commissioner turned urban redeveloper, wants to build 60 to 100 homes, in the shotgun-style frame architecture popular here. There's plenty of room for new houses on these streets, where decently maintained homes sit next to vacant lots or rundown houses. Turanchik has been mum about the full scope of his plans for West Tampa but is seeking to buy at least 24 lots from the city for starters.

So there's the secrecy surrounding the project to account for the lack of wider coverage. And Turanchik's failure to bring home his previous redevelopment effort, Civitas. And the fact that he isn't nearly as famous as Trump. And the fact that it is harder to go into a neighborhood and interview its diverse residents than it is to attend a fancy party for The Donald.

Still, that's no excuse for the level of journalistic butt-smooching that has gone on for the Trump project and the relative obscurity of the West Tampa plans.

The Tribune, although its story count is half that of the Times on the subject of Trump, is the worse offender, putting his most recent press conference into nearly breathless front-page terms.

The story gushed that Trump came to town with two surprises: that his building was 98 percent leased (it was 70 percent leased the day after news first got out, so the update was not exactly stunning news) and he was donating $100,000 to the Tampa Museum of Art (which gets the museum exactly 1/20th closer to its fundraising shortfall of $2 million).

The Tribune reported that Trump joked, "Maybe we'll just stay in Tampa. Who needs Palm Beach?"

Oh, God, let's hope not.

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