TAMPA — The Pied Piper of Kentucky came to town Thursday night, looking for white-collar workers.
The piper brought whiskey from his home state: Maker's Mark, among other brands, served in short glasses drizzled with red wax. It was free to guests of legal age. You could also have pita points, and marinated olives, and Five Onion Dip.
The piper was Jerry Abramson, mayor of Louisville, a city named for a French king. This was his seventh such cross-country venture in search of the Louisville Diaspora. He stood in the foyer at the Renaissance Hotel, in the glow of electric chandeliers, surrounded by hundreds of former Kentucky residents he had come to bring home.
"It's called being aggressive," he said with an air of good cheer.
Louisville is traditionally known as the home of Colonel Sanders, Hunter Thompson and the guy who invented chewing gum. It was once the world's largest producer of synthetic rubber. It is responsible for 90 percent of the nation's disco balls. It has a baseball bat made from 34 tons of steel. Over the years, some people have fled.
Some of them trickled down here. Census figures say that from 1995 to 2000, for example, 467 people who had lived in Jefferson County (which contains Louisville) wound up in Hillsborough County (which contains Tampa). That may not sound like a lot, but Abramson said the Tampa Bay area has one of the University of Louisville's largest alumni groups.
Now the city is trying to get its home-grown professionals back.
It has shorter commute times than Tampa and a lower cost of living. It has a revitalized downtown and a rejuvenated waterfront. It has, according to Abramson, more locally owned restaurants per capita than any American city besides New York.
At first glance, Louisville may not look like a threat. According to the Internal Revenue Service, only 52 tax filers left the Tampa area for the Louisville area from 2006 to 2007, bringing with them only $2.1-million in income. When people leave here, they tend to prefer Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and Houston. Louisville is nowhere near the top.
Then again, the metro area is having trouble keeping its residents. From 2006 to 2007, St. Petersburg and Clearwater were among the highest in the nation in population loss.
Blair Jesse, a 44-year-old commercial loan administrator who lives in St. Petersburg, stood by the bar, near a sign that said Louisville Takes Bourbon Urban, and complained about sagging home values and rising insurance costs.
"My wife and I are considering moving to Louisville," he said.
Then he remembered the cold, the windshield ice, the snow shovels, and he said those things alone might be enough to keep him away.
Ice clinked in the glasses, and Abramson worked the room. But outside, a few miles to the west, the sapphire-green tide rolled across the sand.
Thomas Lake can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3416.