DOWNTOWN — Mayor Pam Iorio stuck a ceremonial gold shovel in the dirt earlier this week, breaking ground one last time for another segment of her signature project, the Tampa Riverwalk.
She couldn't stop digging, though she knew she had to.
"My last groundbreaking. Have to do it right," Iorio said, pushing the gleaming blade into the hard dirt. "I think I'm addicted to shoveling. I should add up all the shoveling and ribbon cutting. I think it would be significant."
The event was her last official city duty, an appropriate ending to an eight-year career that can be marked by the parks and museums built under her leadership.
Neighborhood leaders find Iorio's fingerprints on parks and trail projects citywide, including downtown, in Davis Islands, Seminole Heights, Carver City and New Tampa.
During her tenure, officials say, Iorio nearly tripled the city's investment in neighborhood infrastructure projects including parks improvements. She oversaw the addition of 100 acres of parkland and 388 acres of conservation land.
Parks supporters, such as Friends of the Riverwalk chairman Dan Mahurin, will have a hard time letting her go when Bob Buckhorn officially claims the mayoral office today.
"Melancholy as it is, it could not be more fitting that you're here," Mahurin told Iorio during Tuesday's groundbreaking ceremony.
As a final memento, he handed her a piece of the same granite that lines the Riverwalk.
"It is fitting that this is my last project," Iorio said, "because the Riverwalk is so close to my heart."
• • •
Iorio's push for parks began as a child in Temple Terrace, walking along the Hillsborough River to get to Riverhills Elementary School.
The river played an integral part of her formative years, she said, and it was where she waded and built forts with her friends. As a child, she became a budding environmentalist after learning that the water hyacinth was an invasive floating plant that choked the state's waterways. She often fished the plants out of the water with a long stick, thinking she could stop the incursion.
When Iorio became mayor, she said, she noticed how much of Tampa's waterways had been walled off. She made it a priority to transform it into a place where people can kayak and stroll.
While the Riverwalk concept has been around since the mid 1970s, it didn't start taking shape until Iorio began setting the agenda at City Hall.
"The Riverwalk didn't do much prior to her," said Lee Hoffman, Riverwalk development manager. "She has been phenomenal putting resources into it."
This week's ribbon cutting signaled the start to construction for two segments of the 2.2-mile Riverwalk, which ultimately will link the Channel District to Tampa Heights along Garrison Channel and the Hillsborough River.
A 205-foot, $1.9 million piece will be built behind the convention center, under the Brorein Street bridge at Ashley Drive. Another 345 feet, costing $750,000, will stretch from Brorein to almost MacDill Park along the water. Both projects should be complete by late April 2012.
Additionally, another $925,000 has been secured to build a 205-foot walkway over the water along Ashley Drive at the CapTrust building. That construction project has been put out to bid and the city hopes to start building in June.
Combined, the contiguous projects total $3.5 million and would complete 60 percent or 1.5 miles of the Riverwalk.
• • •
More of Iorio's progress over eight years can be measured at the $15.7 million Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and adjoining Kiley Garden, restored for $4.2 million. Suburban mothers now bring their kids here to play in fountains, while downtown professionals bring their lunches to enjoy views of the Hillsborough River and the University of Tampa minarets.
"We have seen in the last 10 years a more dramatic reclamation of that waterfront than we have before," Tampa Downtown Partnership president Christine Burdick said. "A city sought after needs to have spaces where people can relax and play and be peaceful. Really, it's rounding out the opportunities the city has for its citizens as well as visitors."
But Iorio's advancements in parks extends beyond downtown.
In Seminole Heights, the Seminole Garden Center was rededicated after a $1.4 million face-lift, giving the neighborhood a new meeting space for events such as weddings and community events.
On Davis Islands, 1.3 miles of the Davis Islands Trail opened this year at Channel Drive, weaving along the sea wall.
"It's very well-done. I notice in the morning, there's a lot of people out using it," said Harold Moore, a Davis Islands resident over three decades. "Pam Iorio and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But I have to give her credit. I think for eight years, she's done a tremendous job in the city of Tampa."
In Carver City, the $3 million Loretta Ingraham Recreation Complex gave teens a new gym, library, fitness room and arts and craft room.
In New Tampa, a $694,000 skate park features pyramids, stairs, wedges, grind rails and a series of quarter pipe jumps.
And, on March 23, Iorio helped break ground on the $815,000 Channel District Park, which will consist of a half-acre that includes a lawn, seagrass sculpture, shade structure, palm garden and dog park along Washington and 12th streets. The project is expected to be completed at the end of October and will be the Channel District's first public park.
"I just want people to have a really good quality of life," Iorio said.
Capitalizing on the presence of the Hillsborough River is one way to do that.
"A river that winds through your city belongs to everybody," she said.
On the piece of Riverwalk granite the Friends of the Riverwalk gave her last week, was an inscription that included her name and six words:
"Opened the River to the People."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.