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Downtown Tampa: One step forward, one step back

Someday, somebody will have to explain my town to me.

Downtown Tampa has long had a chronic case of downtown St. Pete envy. We want so badly to be, if you can stand the Chamber of Commerce words, livable, walkable, vibrant and alive for residents, workers and visitors, day and night.

And we're trying. Look at our nearly-finished Riverwalk, our fabulous and artfully-lighted bridges, our rolling city park on the river. Downtown events actually draw crowds, like that thriving outdoor market at lunchtime on Fridays.

Oh, wait. That's canceled.

This is confounding no matter how downtown boosters try to explain the change. For four years, workers flocked to the Friday market for lunch and produce and jewelry and such. You saw a county commissioner buying honey, a judge eating crepes. You had music and food and interesting stuff to look at and buy.

Some restaurants complained about losing lunch business, but here's my unscientific observation on that: It is the culture of Tampa's downtown that people who work here often drive to Ybor City or Hyde Park for lunch. The market was a draw, at least, and a chance to showcase some great downtown restaurants. (We have French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Thai and more.)

But the Tampa Downtown Partnership says it has a better idea, which the organization credits to "market research" over restaurant complaints (Hmm): A market on Sundays (more on that in a minute) and an alternate plan for Fridays: Lunches from restaurants to eat in the park and — I am not making this up —Frisbees and Hula Hoops to play with.

Now, if you can promise us elected officials partaking in Hula Hooping, that would be worth the trip, but … really? Because I'm seeing more Friday car trips to Ybor.

This is how we do things here. We have a grocery store at the edge of downtown not far from offices and hotels. Hooray. But crossing the street to get to it is a death-defying experience. So much for walkable.

Oh, and did you hear the Whole Foods grocery store, with its hot food and salad bar take-away, is considering downtown St. Pete? Of course it is.

Tampa recently got reasons for some Charlotte envy, too. Sure, we were impressive in our handling of security and protesters at the Republican National Convention. But at the Democratic version that followed, we saw Charlotte's streets teeming with people who could be whisked around by light rail.

Downtown Tampa during the RNC was deader than Tombstone.

So why does a Friday market even matter? It's a small sign a city is interesting and alive, like rating a Trader Joe's or having an impressive show at the art museum.

The planned Sunday downtown market is (potentially) encouraging news. I hope it catches on, but here is a worry: They won't generally have prepared food, as in lunch-on-the-go, a big element of successful city markets I've been to. (Yes, St. Pete's Saturday market, I mean you.) Organizers say Sunday marketers can eat at downtown Tampa restaurants and cafe tables. Will they?

So Tampa gains a Sunday market I hope we are ready for and loses a vibrant Friday one that was a lot of fun for downtown workers. A step forward, a step back. It's the Tampa way.

Downtown Tampa: One step forward, one step back 09/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 1:49am]
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