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Going for a walk and discovering a new Tampa

Deborah Whitehead and Gail Coleman didn't know about the mass graves at Oaklawn Cemetery, nor that Tampa's first mayor was buried there. They hadn't heard about the prominent white civic leader named William Ashley who now rests in peace with his longtime companion, an African-American servant named Nancy.

Neither had I, even though the cemetery with all its historical nuggets sits a few blocks from my downtown office.

We agreed that we could learn more about this city — and perhaps get fit in the process.

I met Whitehead and Coleman last week during Do the LOCAL Motion, a walking tour program that has taken off quite nicely.

If you haven't noticed, at noon every other Friday a big group gathers at Lykes Gaslight Square Park. Some are dressed in comfortable sweatpants or shorts. Others have slipped on gym shoes and a T-shirt with their office skirts and slacks. They break into smaller sets and walk 1.5 to 2 miles round-trip.

A tour guide points to landmarks in and around downtown: Oaklawn Cemetery, the old First United Methodist Church building on N Florida Avenue.

Healthy Together, a coalition that promotes healthy living, worked with the Tampa Downtown Partnership to create the tours as a way to promote exercise. The effort was needed, especially after a survey last year highlighted the Tampa Bay area as one of the nation's worst for "walkability," said Dianne Blyler, the coalition's vice president.

The tours started Oct. 3 and, with businesses spreading the word at company forums and through human resources departments, 200 to 300 people have shown up for each walk, Blyler said.

Organizers plan to offer them through mid December, break for the holidays, then start up again sometime in 2009. Blyler envisions Super Bowl tourists taking the tours, too. Podcasts with local musicians and the voice of a tour guide allow people to take walks at their convenience.

R.J. Falsone, a 55-year-old clerk at the courthouse, took her first tour last week. "I need the exercise, sitting at that computer all day," she said.

Walking also gives local businesses an economic boost, leaders say. That sounded a bit far-fetched to me, until I talked with Casey Crone, a 32-year-old office manager for Batson-Cook downtown. She and Margaret Hickey, 47, were on their second walking tour, hoping to build up stamina for the American Lung Association's annual 42-flight climb up the Bank of America building in March.

A tour guide led them down N Franklin Street, and Crone noticed a cute little gift shop she never knew existed. She'll go back again, she said.

Then came Paulette Schlies, 59, who drove an hour and a half from her home in New Port Richey. She's part of an area walking club and was curious about the efforts in Tampa. And the exterior of one historic-looking building was equally intriguing.

"I'm going to have to look up the Tampa Theatre and find out what's going on here," she said, studying the old-fashioned marquee.

Coleman, 55, and Whitehead, 52, work downtown at the tax collector's office and found themselves learning more about Tampa, while walking to keep their "bones in motion," one of them said.

During a previous tour that included a stop at the University of Tampa, Coleman walked the campus grounds and thought it interesting "to see the young people out tanning."

Whitehead commented on a previous tour near Harbour Island, an area she had never paid much attention to. An adventurous guide led her group through the lobby areas of the Marriott and Hyatt hotels.

"It was soooo nice," Whitehead said, beaming. "Folks come to Florida to see that kind of stuff. We're right here in it."

I suppose what Blyler says has a ring of truth: "You never know a city," she said, "until you walk it."

>>fast facts

Do the LOCAL Motion

Downtown walking tours are 1.5 to 2 miles round-trip and begin at Lykes Gaslight Square Park, 400 block of N. Franklin Street. They are timed to last a lunch break, from noon to about 12:45 p.m. You can also take the tours at your convenience by downloading podcasts with music and tour guides at

healthy-together.org.

Walking tour dates

Nov. 14: East downtown and Port of Tampa areas

Dec. 5: South downtown and the Riverwalk

Dec. 19: West downtown and Plant Park

Going for a walk and discovering a new Tampa 11/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 6, 2008 3:30am]

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