DOWNTOWN — As the sun set on Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, neon lights outside the Tampa Museum of Art began to shimmer, the silver University of Tampa minarets across the Hillsborough River glowed and the sound of trumpets and saxophones lifted a jubilant crowd.
They had come, by the thousands, to Tampa's first-ever Gasparilla Music Festival. They sang along with an eclectic group of performers. They stood in long lines to buy sandwiches and drinks from area vendors.
Beach balls were even passed around — along with a question of sorts.
Are we in Tampa?
Native young professionals who grew up when Tampa touted its 1980s slogan "America's Next Great City" finally started to believe it during last Saturday's music festival. Transplants from vibrant urban centers had nothing to gripe about for once.
"People I know who have lived here maybe five years were saying this is something they missed living in Atlanta," said David Cox, president of the festival's board of directors. "They were just floored. They wanted to know: Why didn't this happen before?"
By most accounts, the festival was a rousing success. It surpassed crowd expectations, showcased downtown's best aesthetic features and lured the area's young adults downtown with a collection of diverse, enjoyable independent bands.
It was the sort of festival that has made Austin and Atlanta known as havens for trendy cultural events. And it put Tampa another step closer to becoming the "hip" city Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants.
"It is exactly the kind of event we need to grow and encourage because that's what will help attract the intellectual capital — the young people — that will fuel our next iteration as a city," said Buckhorn, who attended the festival. "I'd like to see it every weekend. Every weekend."
What made the festival special?
• It exceeded projections. Festival organizers had hoped to draw 4,000 but now estimate at least 6,000 came. (Final counts weren't available at press time.)
• Widely divergent bands performed simultaneously on three stages, catering to an array of tastes and introducing new sounds to mainstream ears. Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band showed a large crowd how marching band instruments can become tools for a nonstop dance party in the hands of New Orleans musicians. Skinny-tie wearing Brooklyn lounge act Tortured Soul and horn-blaring Spam Allstars pushed pulsing sounds found in Miami or New York's clubs into the open air. Alternative country rockers Deer Tick gave rock fans huge hooks to nod to while white-suit clad soul singer Lee Fields transported generations back to the 1970s.
"This definitely helps give Tampa more credibility with alternative (music) acts and it showed — with its great lineup — that independent music doesn't necessarily mean four guys in a punk group," said Carl Webb, owner of Seminole Heights' Microgroove record store.
• Food and drink vendors came from local restaurants, many based downtown. Fly Bar ran out of its popular garlic fries. Pipo's Cafe served up giant plates of rice, plantains and black beans. Long lines stretched for Malio's Prime Steakhouse sandwiches.
"It's exactly what we needed," said Anne Vela, manager of Cafe Hey, which sold scores of Cuban sandwiches. "As we looked around, this park was made for this. It was a great gathering of great people, local food and a mix of music. This was perfect."
• The festival spotlighted an urban renaissance and rejuvenation that's been happening downtown for the past six years. Remodeled Curtis Hixon park and Kiley Gardens proved to be a place everyone can comfortably congregate — Tampa's "living room" — just as former Mayor Pam Iorio predicted in 2010.
"It brought in people who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to visit and learn about downtown," said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. "Downtown is a pretty easy-to-access place and it brought people into the heart of the city where they can really be part of the environment. Tall buildings and residents and workers and culture — and it all added to the vibrancy of downtown."
The only drawback? The park took longer to clean up than expected, Burdick said. Workers didn't finish until Monday. "That's a very good problem to have," she said. "Fixable and it means a really good time was had by all."
Fans can be certain the festival will return next year to the same venue but with more independent bands and local vendors, Cox said. Organizers hope to add stages elsewhere in downtown to go along with Curtis Hixon though they haven't discussed where yet.
"Our end goal, and we don't know exactly how we'll get there, but we want to create a distinctively Tampa event," Cox said. "I've been to Jazz Fest in New Orleans and the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I., and a lot of festivals that have been around for 30 years. The reason they endure is because they take advantage of their natural settings and their cultural heritage, and I felt Tampa needed to do something like that."
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3368.