TAMPA — The typical graduate student in regional planning at the University of North Carolina is about 26 years old with two years' experience.
So when classes started in Chapel Hill last month, it wasn't hard picking out which person in the new class of 55 was unlike the rest.
The student of note was Bill Bishop, who at age 49 is one of Tampa's most prominent developers. He helped build two of the county's largest and most notable suburban communities: FishHawk Ranch and Westchase. Before he left Tampa for school, he was working on his most visionary project, revamping downtown's outer edge with a $500-million condo-and-office complex called the Heights of Tampa.
Yet before this project could be built, he moved his family 640 miles north of Tampa. He's now taking classes and reading books on planning theory, some of which he has been putting into practice for more than 20 years.
"Even by our standards, his application was amazing," said Roberto Quercia, director of admissions for UNC's department of city and regional planning. "He has more practical experience than we'll ever get. He has more experience than his professors."
Records show he and his wife Sharon still own their $2.4-million house in northwest Hillsborough County, but some of his closest friends don't know whether Bishop will return. His departure this summer left many stunned.
"I can't believe he's going to be a student, asking professors questions about development," said Jerome Ryans, who as executive director of the Tampa Housing Authority worked with Bishop on another project that, if built, will include affordable housing. "That's what puzzling about this. A man of his experience taking classes?"
He shaped the county
Few people have reshaped Hillsborough County's physical landscape more than Bill Bishop. Not only did he work on a grand scale, but he had a reputation for designing livable spaces that are absent in many of Tampa's other subdivisions.
"People drive around FishHawk and Westchase loving where they live, not knowing that the reason they love those places is because of the work that Bill Bishop did," said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik.
It's not clear why he left. Bishop didn't return messages left with friends or respond to e-mails sent to a UNC account that Quercia said should be working. His number is unpublished at the Chapel Hill house to which records link him.
Phone calls weren't returned by some of his closest associates, such as Don Wallace, a business partner and former chief executive of Lazy Days RV Center; land use lawyer Rhea Law; a spokeswoman, Deanne Roberts; Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, who received $4,000 from Bishop or companies he managed; and Bill Bahlke, chief executive of the engineering firm Heidt & Associates.
Another engineer who is a close friend, Richard Mortensen, said he wanted to check with Bishop before talking about him.
"I don't want to cause Bill harm," said Mortensen, who then didn't call back.
It's unclear if part of the reason Bishop left was his health. His mother, Mildred Bishop, said he had been battling prostate cancer, but she didn't know if he still had it.
Another possible reason why Bishop left is the weak economy. UNC's Quercia said it's common for developers to enroll in graduate planning programs during downturns.
Under Bishop's management, the Heights of Tampa project had stalled, partly because of financing problems. It wasn't until April that city officials say the project started making headway again. By then, Bishop had given up control of the companies developing the project to some Lakeland businessmen. They now plan to break ground in October on the first building, which is slated for offices.
As he was preparing to leave town, Bishop fended off charges that a company under his management wasn't paying its bills. Cathy Flippo, a Longwood business owner, said Renaissance Steel, which Bishop managed, owed her $86,000 for labor and materials.
Bishop wrote Flippo an Aug. 1 letter that stated Renaissance Steel was insolvent and out of business, without the resources to "fully satisfy the remaining outstanding claims of creditors."
Bishop wrote a check for $42,130, deducting back charges that he said offset some of Flippo's claim, but she said the company still owes her $46,925.
Two other claims have been made against Renaissance since May, alleging a total of $82,000 in unpaid bills. In late July, the county's Tax Collector's Office filed a notice that Renaissance was late paying nearly $40,000 on taxes for its equipment that, if not paid by the end of the month, would be delinquent.
A new adventure
None of this seemed to have spoiled the mood at the goodbye party Bishop and his wife held at their house this summer. More than a hundred friends, including Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson and Turanchik, a former business partner, wished him well.
"It was like he was going on this new adventure, and we were there to see him off," said Ray Chiaramonte, interim executive director of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization.
"He talked about the market being slow and that this was a good time to do it," said Chiaramonte, who wrote a letter of recommendation to UNC calling Bishop "one of the best development professionals that I have ever met."
While Chiaramonte said he fully expects Bishop to come back, Turanchik said he wasn't so sure. He said that eight years ago, Bishop told him he was interested in academia. Those plans took a detour when Bishop became interested in redeveloping Tampa Heights and the Central Park Village area. But without those projects, Turanchik said he could see Bishop becoming a writer.
"Bill's motivation at this point is to do something to engage his mind and his spirit," Turanchik said.
Turanchik and Chiaramonte said he leaves behind, at least for now, a legacy of quality development that paid close attention to details frequently overlooked by other developers, such as sidewalks, bike trails, street lighting and trees.
Even though the Heights of Tampa hasn't come to fruition yet, the project is a testament to Bishop's willingness to stray from the suburban norm and take a risk overhauling the urban landscape, said Lena Young-Green, former president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. She said Bishop, more than other developers, cooperated with residents in establishing a redevelopment plan the neighborhood wanted.
"To me, his move back to school goes along with what he's done in the past," Young-Green said. "He was a successful suburban developer who became an urban redeveloper. He's not afraid of changes. It means he's still exploring."
Times staff writers Janet Zink, Amy Scherzer and Jeff Testerman and researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.