The $100 Million Magic Wand

Tampa leaders talk about how to spend the big bucks.

Good news! The bonds from the Tampa Convention Center will be paid off on 11/15/15, which frees up approximately $100 million to reinvest in downtown Tampa’s Community Reinvestment Area (CRA). CRA money must be used to “rid downtown of blight,” and has to be spent within the downtown core.

If you were the ruler of Tampa’s downtown, with $100 million to do your bidding, how would you invest that vast sum to encourage economic vibrancy in our urban core?

Would you select one big project, say a baseball stadium or its parking structure, where this princely sum becomes a dowry to woo the Rays?
Do you choose a series of projects like parks, public art, wider sidewalks, capital needs of city-owned cultural facilities, like the Straz and the Tampa Theatre — all smaller in scale, intended to boost activity throughout the area?

Or in a Solomon-esque gesture do you decide to split the baby and spend $50 million on baseball and $50 million on other projects? This politically safer choice would allow some of the Hillsborough County Commissioners, who get to vote on the reauthorization of the Downtown CRA, to feel that their 50 percent portion of the CRA dollars would be directed toward their sports shrine.

If we accept the triple bottom line — people, profit and planet — as the metric for our analysis, then things get even more complicated, because judging a successful urban core reaches far beyond adding up dollars and cents. It speaks to our downtown’s livability.

How do we quantify livability? Isn’t the lure of great cities often in their urban form? Just consider St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive or Sarasota’s Marina and how the loveliness of those places lures locals and visitors, resulting in increased investment.

In their book Measuring Urban Design: Metrics for Livable Places, authors Reid Eweing and Otto Clemente pose the question, “What makes strolling down a particular street enjoyable?” They argue it’s not an idle question. Inviting streets are the centerpiece of thriving, sustainable communities.

I queried a variety of community leaders about how they would invest the CRA money. Here are their responses:

Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen stated, “As CRA members, we must look at the economic spin-off from our investment. With our cultural facilities, we can track the attendees, jobs and dollars generated.”

“Parks would be a smart investment,” opined Tom Hall at a recent CRA meeting. Hall, a founder of the Tampa Downtown Partnership and past chair of that group, envisions up to a dozen parks, each highlighted by distinctive public art, even reviving the notion of a 100-foot-tall Picasso sculpture that had been proposed for the USF campus in the early ’70s.

Hall, chair of mega PR firm Tucker/Hall, described the painful results from surveys taken during the Republican Convention. “No media had anything good to say about our downtown. We need a distinct identity with a positive public image. A series of parks, graced with public art that is well-lit at night, would be a great start.”

Demain Miller, an urban planner with Tindale-Oliver, urges a different approach. “I would invest in improving our existing downtown transit system, our streetcar. We could buy newer, more reliable cars, expand the hours of operation and extend the streetcar’s route to the north.” Miller observes that transportation will be a major factor defining the livabilty of our downtown.

“We need to make downtown streets more pedestrian-friendly,” said Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Enticing walkways need to connect the Convention Center to the rest of the Central Business District. It would be strategic to eliminate the unlovable Con Agra complex and replace it with condos, parks and businesses that are linked by attractive east-west sidewalks, which would recreate the street grid.”

Candy Olson, a 19-year veteran of the Hillsborough County School Board, thinks that it’s wise to invest in the maintenace of our city-owned cultural assets, like the Straz and Tampa Theatre. She oberves, ”There’s a cost in letting things go: it is much more expensive to go back and fix neglected buildings than to have kept the maintenance up all along.” Olson concluded that the city has a responsibilty as landlord to contribute toward such buildings' maintenance.

Henry Lewis is an urban pioneer, living and working in downtown Tampa since August 1968. As a business owner he would support improved landscaping and transportation. He would also invest in the streetcar, tripling the frquency of trips and making it free to ride.

Highlighting the Selmon Greenway, a 15-foot-wide pedestrian/bicycle pathway paralleling the raised expressway, would be the best investment according to Shilpa Mehta, senior urban designer with the Renaissance Planning Group. This basic trail, already planned and funded, will be completed by early 2015. Without additional funding, the Selmon Greenway will be little more than a paved alley backing up to the highway. Landscaping, better lighting, benches and strategically reorienting the adjoining land uses to face the Greenway are needed enhancements. Shilpa believes that cafes, pocket gardens and having apartments and shops face the Greenway will enliven and engage the public.

There’s no shortage of ideas about using this money to improve our city center. Yolie Capin, Tampa City Council member, deserves full credit for opening the public conversation about how this money should be invested to improve downtown Tampa. Please add your voice to the conversation. Comment on this story online, or go to CL’s Facebook page to tell us how you’d spend that $100 million if you were in charge of Tampa’s future. 

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