TAMPA — Fernando Noriega Jr. understood how special Ybor City could be, how vibrant a community its mix of Cuban, Italian and Spanish immigrants could create.
He was the son of a Cuban mother and a Spanish father who worked in Ybor's cigar factories. He played football on the brick-paved streets with kids from the neighborhood, most of them first-generation Americans. He met Margaret at a tea dance at Centro Espanol one Sunday afternoon, and at their wedding reception in Ybor Heights six months later, they served dulce finos, a sweet Spanish cookie.
So when Mr. Noriega climbed the ranks of Tampa city government, he didn't forget about Ybor City. Even after urban renewal efforts and new highways gashed its neighborhoods and much of the area fell into disrepair, he made it a goal to bring it back.
"A pioneer for the rebirth of Ybor City," said former Gov. Bob Martinez, who as mayor of Tampa worked with Mr. Noriega. "He led the choir."
Mr. Noriega, who served as Tampa Mayor Dick Greco's administrator of development from 1995 to 2003 after decades in other roles in city government, died Monday. He was 81.
Mr. Noriega rose to prominence at a key juncture for Ybor City, said Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa's La Gaceta newspaper. The area's decline was teetering on terminal as many boarded-up warehouses risked becoming unfixable and longtime tenants considered closing their doors. Any later, Manteiga said, and it might have been too late.
"They kept that spirit alive," Manteiga said.
Mr. Noriega was credited with negotiating big development deals for the area, including the Centro Ybor mall, the Ybor Hilton hotel and the headquarters of staffing firm Kforce. Elsewhere in Tampa, he played a role in building the city's streetcar line and the development of Stetson University's Tampa Law Center and the Marriott Waterside downtown.
The city of Tampa honored those efforts by naming a parking garage for Mr. Noriega in Ybor City.
Mr. Noriega pulled those deals together mostly outside the spotlight. He knew the community, and he had a way with people, urging property owners to invest in their vacant buildings and pitching a vision of Ybor as a place to live and hang out.
"It was a long, slow process," Martinez said. "He had a real passion for it."
But then, Mr. Noriega had also lived it.
When he and Jack Espinosa, 85, would get together, they'd reminisce about growing up across from each other on Ybor Street — about playing pickup football games, dancing with girls at the Centro each week, and going to picnics and the theater. They talked about growing close with classmates at Orange Grove Elementary, George Washington Middle and Jefferson High schools, many of whom had similar upbringings as the children of immigrants.
"It's almost like being born in a foxhole, together with all that bunch," Espinosa said. "We were forced to live together in spite of the fact of our differences. …We developed a very unique culture."
Decades after his charge to revive that culture began, Mr. Noriega offered his colleagues a few words of parting advice, saying at his farewell party in 2003: "Don't mess with Ybor."
Contact Thad Moore at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.