Ybor City, flirting again with stadium, nearly landed one to host bullfights

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TAMPA — The clang of cowbells would sound across Ybor City if fans of the Tampa Bay Rays get a new stadium there some day.

The last time boosters pitched Ybor City as a regional sports attraction, it was cries of "Olé!" that got people excited.

Bullfighting was their game.

The late Cesar Gonzmart, personable owner of the Columbia restaurant, donned matador attire and walked the Florida Capitol in May 1970, kissing the hands of the women, sweet-talking the men and winning over the state Legislature to the idea of legalizing bloodless bull fighting so Ybor City could build an arena.

"The restaurant was struggling terribly and Ybor was nothing more than vacant lots with memories of better days," said Richard Gonzmart, Cesar Gonzmart’s son and the fourth-generation owner of the Columbia.

"My dad was trying to do anything to restore life."

Now, baseball is the game as Hillsborough County leaders work to lure the Rays from St. Petersburg to a 14-acre site at Adamo and Channelside drives on the southwestern edge of Ybor City.

Gonzmart, who was 15 when his father pitched the bullfighting arena and now is an animal activist, sees this as a much better fit.

"Baseball was a big part of Ybor’s early culture," he said. "Even though the bullfighting was bloodless, it aggravates the animal. I’m against it. Thank goodness the bullfighting didn’t happen."

Still, it came as close as the hair on a bull’s tail.

Nearly 50 years ago, the federal government under President Lyndon Johnson pursued a policy of urban renewal — demolish old buildings in urban areas and replace them with what was modern for the day.

Except that in Ybor City, no replacements came.

"The whole idea behind it was flawed because the private sector had no incentive to build in the area," said Andrew Huse, author of The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine.

Bull fighting was to be the catalyst.

The idea was born when dictator Francisco Franco invited the Gonzmart family to Spain to be honored for keeping Ybor City’s Spanish culture alive.

Their itinerary included a trip to the island of Majorca, home to an often-sold out arena for bloodless bullfighting, where matadors stuck a piece of Velcro rather than a lance between the shoulder blades of a bull.

"My dad said, ‘If they can do it, why not us?’?" Gonzmart said.

Cesar Gonzmart teamed with Tampa-based home-builder Jim Walter to pursue the idea, and Mayor Dick Greco backed it.

A walled area was designed within Ybor City, bordered by Seventh Avenue to the south, Interstate 4 to the north, 22nd Street to the east and 17th Street to the west, according to news archives.

In addition to an arena, the complex would include a 120-room Spanish-style castle hotel, 47 shops and cafes, and an outdoor market for vendors, artists and musicians.

Similarly, plans for a baseball stadium would include surrounding commercial development.

The initial cost was $15 million and the planners estimated it would bring 2.5 million tourists annually, based on the belief that Ybor City would see some traffic from the opening of Disney World in 1971.

"Why wouldn’t someone drive to see something not available anywhere else in the United States?" Greco said in an interview last week. "The more I thought about it, I liked it."

Getting the Legislature to legalize bloodless bullfights was the easy part.

"With a dreamer like Gonzmart and the capital of Walter and a politician like Greco, not a lot of people would say no to that group," author Huse said.

Then the Humane Society stepped in.

"I’ve still never received more calls against anything else than that," Greco said. "It was an avalanche of people from all over the world, not just locally."

The animal advocacy group went so far as to picket the Columbia restaurant.

As the Gonzmart group sought to raise money, bloodless bullfights taking advantage of the new legislation began popping up in other parts of the state.

In October 1970, Orlando Sports Stadium hosted one.

Then in February 1971, a bloodless bullfight in Bradenton turned bloody.

The bull broke through a chain-link fence, charged toward the crowd and was shot by police.

The Legislature responded by outlawing the sport again and the Ybor City project was dead.

Baseball in Ybor, Gonzmart predicts, should enjoy a happier ending.

"I think my father would be so proud to see baseball in a big way come back to Ybor City. And I think he’d agreed this is better for Ybor."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

     
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