The Top 10 Tampa Bay news stories of 2008

click to enlarge #2: Obama turns Florida Blue. The soon-to-be president at a rally at Steinbrenner Stadium in Tampa on Oct. 20. - David Katz/Obama for America
David Katz/Obama for America
#2: Obama turns Florida Blue. The soon-to-be president at a rally at Steinbrenner Stadium in Tampa on Oct. 20.

It was not a good year for Tampa Bay, battered by a national recession that hit Florida hard and our own region even harder. At one point during the summer, we were second in the nation in job losses, and each click of the mouse brought a new study that showed us lagging in a variety of economic or quality of life categories.
But it wasn’t all bad. The Tampa Bay Rays started their season wrapped up in the controversy over a proposed new ballpark and wound up in the World Series. Florida played a key role in the presidential campaigns, and St. Pete even hosted a primary debate. Light-rail transit moved steps closer to a vote in 2010. Gays made gains despite landing on the losing end of a referendum. And civic activists continued to fight attempts to water down growth plans and wetlands protections.
Here’s our choice for the 10 most important and far-reaching stories in Tampa Bay for 2008.

1. The Recession.
Florida saw 115,000 jobs go bye-bye in the past year, but breaking that number down for just Tampa Bay is difficult, if not impossible. One measure of the depth of the recession here is the more than 3,000 lost jobs that are reported to the state as part of a law requiring large-scale corporate layoffs to be documented with Florida agencies (only a fraction of the total job losses). Through October there were 40,000 more Tampa Bay residents unemployed than a year ago. Governments shed jobs. The private sector shed jobs. BayWalk in St. Petersburg, once the jewel of a revitalizing downtown, is in foreclosure. Thousands of mortgages are in foreclosure (almost double from last year’s rate). Credit is tight to nonexistent. Creative Loafing headed to bankruptcy court. A Tampa City Council member joined us there, as did thousands of others.
The nation’s recession hit growth-dependent Florida hard, and Tampa Bay got it worse than much of the state. The St. Petersburg Times quoted prominent UF economist David Denslow as saying of the recession here: “Tampa (Bay) will be worse than the U.S., longer and deeper. Pretty much the same as Florida, perhaps slightly more severe.”
Wish we could say something good about the year’s biggest news story. But we can’t.

2. Barack Obama carries Florida. Florida turned blue for Obama, even if the state pretty much stayed red everywhere else. So we’re an off-purple for now. The youth vote helped Obama carry the state, to be certain, as early voting locations were jammed with young people alongside the traditional older folks casting ballots. But Obama’s campaign organization was unprecedented in its breadth, with more than 100,000 active volunteers coordinated from 60 field offices. It was that structure, plus successful get-out-the-vote-early efforts, that sealed the deal for Obama; according to an Associated Press analysis, John McCain beat Obama in Election Day voting by 5 percentage points.
(While Obama carried the state, Democrats didn’t make gains in the Florida Legislature, so don’t count the Republican Party out just yet.)

3. The collapse of Florida newspapers. It was a bad year for traditional journalism, as changing social habits and the crushing recession (see item 1 above) accelerated the pace of financial losses at the state’s daily newspapers. Most saw layoffs and buyouts, more than 1,000 over the past few years from the trio of South Florida dailies (Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post). The Tampa Tribune’s latest round of layoffs (job losses there are in the hundreds) claimed popular columnist Dan Ruth and Editorial Page Editor Rosemary Goudreau; 200 staff members at the St. Petersburg Times took early retirement packages, helping the paper avoid layoffs; and last week, Creative Loafing announced layoffs in its editorial, sales and circulation departments.
To combat the collapsing economics, former rivals turned to cooperation. The Times and Miami Herald combined their Tallahassee bureaus. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel now prints and distributes the Palm Beach Post in neighborhoods where the two papers once fought for stories and circulation. The Times is now distributing Creative Loafing. Yes, it’s real apocalyptic stuff.

4. High gas prices (and partisan politics) lead to offshore drilling support. This year we found out that nothing gets Floridians more riled up than $4-a-gallon gasoline. Outrageous gas prices dominated the news in 2008, from a rise in siphoning thefts to local governments crippled by the unforeseen fuel increase. But the biggest story was the “drill, baby, drill” fever that swept the state.
Long the third rail of Florida politics, support for offshore oil drilling suddenly became very popular. First, President Bush and presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama flip-flopped from previous anti-drilling stances. Our own Governor Charlie Crist followed. Finally, even as gas prices lowered, Florida’s top tourism bureau endorsed the idea, too.

5. Beckner beats Blair. Right-wing blowhard/former wrestler Brian Blair seemed a lock for re-election to his Hillsborough County Commission job, despite his crusades against gays, Muslims and the environment. It’s still a Republican County, after all, and the power of incumbency and its related fundraising is strong. Then came along Kevin Beckner, a Democrat and financial advisor who focused his campaign on fiscal responsibility, better planning and listening to constituents. Never mind that Beckner’s sexual orientation was a media fascination. With a grassroots army and young voters committed to him, Beckner upset Blair and changed the entire nature of the wrongheaded County Commission. As a result, expect to see that board vote to put a light-rail transit referendum on the ballot in 2010 and maybe even approve a county mayor referendum to boot.

6. The ginormous Confederate flag controversy. Just when we thought our little part of Florida had moved beyond the divisive racial problems of the past, Tampa beekeeper Marion Lambert rubs the wound raw again by erecting a semi truck-sized Confederate flag at the intersection of I-4 and I-75.
In June, Lambert and the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter raised the flag as part of their memorial park honoring Confederate soldiers. In a matter of days, Lambert became the most divisive man in Hillsborough County, attracting the support of fellow Confederate flag devotees and the ire of the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners, the local NAACP chapter and nearby businesses. For better or worse, Lambert’s 40-by-60-foot flag will influence how the rest of the state and nation view the Tampa Bay area, especially in January when the Super Bowl comes to town.

7. Tampa Bay Rays lose new stadium, World Series. You win some, you lose some. Unfortunately for the Rays, they lost big this year.
In the spring, the Rays failed in their bid to build a new stadium on St. Petersburg’s waterfront after massive public opposition killed the project.
By fall, local baseball fans were celebrating the Rays’ seemingly impossible run to the World Series. But after five series games against Phillies, the Rays lost.
But the Rays’ lasting impact may be provocation of a change in city rules governing sports teams. Prompted by the stadium fight, and by team owner Stuart Sternberg’s wistful comment during the World Series that suggested he still pines for a waterfront site, anti-ballpark group Preserve our Wallets and Waterfront (POWW) is spearheading a proposed referendum that would require voter approval on any changes to the waterfront and taxpayer spending on sports facilities.

8. Ups and downs for the LGBT community. In a year that saw openly gay candidates run and win in Tampa Bay, it was still a bad year overall for the LGBT forces. More than 60 percent of Floridians voted in November to put an anti-gay marriage provision into the Florida Constitution. The two leading gay rights groups fighting against it couldn’t even muster four in 10 Floridians to come to their side. It was a marquee battle, and one that gays and progressives needed to win.
As crushing as that defeat was, there were smaller victories. In Miami, a circuit judge ruled that the state’s prohibition against gays adopting foster children was unconstitutional. Florida is the only state with an outright ban on gay adoptions, and the Miami decision affects only that county unless higher courts uphold it.
And Tampa now has an emerging gay business district in Ybor City. Being marketed as GaYbor, it includes quirky retail and numerous bars, including G. Bar, Spurs and the Honey Pot.

9. The “greening” of Tampa Bay. For the second year in a row, “green” was the buzzword for eco-consciousness. But instead of just talking about change, local governments actually moved toward better policies this year.
Over the summer, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and the City Council adopted several green initiatives, including a “fast track review” for environmentally sustainable projects. In the last few months, Mayor Iorio has pushed for a 2010 referendum on light rail and an energy conservation task force. Meanwhile, Councilmembers John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena continue to advocate for rooftop gardens and stricter green building codes for government buildings.
On the other side of the bay, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker finally relented and gave the green light for curbside recycling. For years, Mayor Baker had adamantly opposed curbside recycling, labeling the practice expensive and environmentally damaging. But after Pinellas County offered to pay, and thousands of angry residents e-mailed his office, Baker couldn’t refuse.

10. Lowry Park Zoo’s CEO lands in trouble for deals with his for-profit safari park. If it weren’t for the 15 Patas monkeys that escaped from Lex Salisbury’s for-profit venture Safari Wild, we might have never found out the (former) Lowry Park Zoo CEO was using zoo resources for personal gain.
After May’s Great Monkey Escape shed light on Salisbury’s side project, damning evidence of other conflicts of interest and unethical behavior poured in nearly every week. Those news stories culminated in an audit by Tampa city officials that led to Salisbury’s resignation on Dec. 18.

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