TAMPA — Erik Peterson bought the ring. Now he just needed a romantic place to propose. His thoughts turned to downtown.
Just a few years ago, downtown Tampa might have been called stodgy, a charmless cluster of business towers, boarded buildings and empty sidewalks. But now, parks, museums and fountains have sprung up along the riverfront — and memories are being made.
"I knew it was real pretty down there," Peterson said.
He went scouting for the right spot. At Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, which debuted last year after a $42 million renovation, Peterson ran into a city parks employee in a golf cart.
The worker recommended "proposal bench." At the foot of the park, a bench overlooks the Hillsborough River and the University of Tampa's stately silver minarets. On the ground, the words, "Will You Marry Me?" are etched on a paver.
Perfect. Now, just one question remained. Would she?
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On Twiggs Street, couples pop into the 7-month-old Peppermint Reindeer Konfection shop to buy espresso or English toffee flavored truffles and bags of peanut butter bark to sweeten up their love lives. Recently, a woman came in and bought some chocolates she had delivered to her husband, who works downtown, owner Tammy Childers said.
Once a lunch-only locale, downtown has at least 69 restaurants that offer dinner for the dating crowd. Outside the SkyPoint high-rise, couples sit at Taps Wine & Beer Merchants and clink wine glasses or pints of European beer. Across the street, fountains shoot into the sky at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park while a ring of lights encircles the Tampa Museum of Art.
In the winter, more than 23,000 people skated around a temporary ice rink the Friends of Tampa Recreation and the city set up under a tent at the park. The day before Valentine's Day, the Tampa Downtown Market promoted more than 30 vendors selling unique romantic gifts such as jewelry, flowers and fresh baked breads. In May, 4,000 spread out on Curtis Hixon's great lawn for a Pops in the Park Concert where the Florida Orchestra belted out The Sound of Music and West Side Story. The crowd was full of couples who lingered on blankets, some with picnic baskets, many with bottles of wine.
Since Curtis Hixon reopened early last year, 10 weddings have taken place at adjoining Kiley Gardens. Ten more requests are pending, Tampa parks spokeswoman Linda Carlo said.
The city doesn't allow weddings at Curtis Hixon, reserving the park for larger events, but many couples have had their wedding photos taken there.
Justin Demutiis, a photographer who shoots about 30 ceremonies a year, said the park has become so popular for engagement and wedding photos that one couple recently told him they had seen too many wedding photos at Curtis Hixon and wanted something different.
The space, like a convention center that preceded the park, was named for a man who led Tampa through World War II rationing efforts and into prosperity.
In just 18 months, the park that former Mayor Pam Iorio described as Tampa's "living room" has become the city's iconic signature, on its own scale as important to downtown as Central Park is to New York, Millennium Park is to Chicago or the National Mall is to Washington, D.C.
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Peterson, 49, negotiates easements and right of entries for a communications company, and Brenda Fisher, 53, opens trust accounts for a bank. They live a house apart in Temple Terrace, and for years, she'd walk her dog by his house and notice how cute and friendly he was. She always thought she'd like to fix him up with one of her friends since she was in a relationship at the time.
But when it ended, she took charge, marched over to his house and asked him out.
He said yes, flattered but cautious, being neighbors. But soon he found her the perfect match. They're both Christians who love dogs, the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster at Busch Gardens and working on their yards.
A year and seven months into their relationship, Peterson put his proposal plan in motion. He had bought tickets to West Side Story on March 4 and got dressed up. She thought he was acting weird, nervous and fidgety during the play. He took her hand off his knee at one point.
He just didn't want her to feel the ring box in his pocket.
After the play, Peterson persuaded Fisher to walk to Curtis Hixon so he could snap photos of the Tampa Museum of Art for his mother in Dallas.
Fisher had previously worked in downtown, and she charged ahead, excited to show off the Riverwalk, the renovated park and the stunning waterside view of the University of Tampa.
"It was just beautiful," Fisher said. "It was overlooking the University of Tampa. The weather was beautiful. The lighting was real nice."
She blew right past the proposal bench, and Peterson had to think fast how to stop her. He yelled, "Hey Brenda, check this out," and got on his knee as if he was reading the "Will You Marry Me?" paver. She bent over to look. He pulled out a ring. She howled yes. They hope to marry this fall or winter but have already publicly announced their union, carving it in stone, letting the world know downtown had an integral place in their romance.
Just feet away from the "Marry Me" paver, they bought one themselves and inscribed the following: "Brenda said yes to Erik. March 2011."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.