Tampa is slowly learning something St. Petersburg already knows: People will come downtown. At night. And be willing to hang out in a city park.
Make it accessible and pleasant and interesting and cheap, and they will come.
Okay, throwing in a smokin' hot baseball team doesn't hurt, either.
Friday, on pretty much a moment's notice, hundreds of people wearing Rays caps and T-shirts and hefting lawn chairs and coolers trickled into a city park at dusk.
Feel superior if you will, lucky St. Petersburgians, with your downtown green spaces and water views and strolling paths and events. Not so many years ago in downtown Tampa, the doors shut tight at 5, and your only after-hours company was a tumbleweed blowing down Kennedy Boulevard. Bring your family to a city park at night? Not if you actually liked them.
But Friday night they came to see the Rays play the Detroit Tigers on a big inflatable screen set up in (deep breath here) Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park. Do not feel bad if your response is: where? Even some who work downtown every day were unfamiliar with this sweet stretch of green and trees and benches and playground on the water behind the St. Pete Times Forum.
In that brief spate of rare and perfect September weather, people unfolded chairs in the waning light. Children romped and grownups sat chatting, the lights of downtown skyscrapers on one side, the tony homes of Harbour Island on the other. Now and again a trolley car rumbled past. And it was — it was actually pretty. Picturesque. St. Petersburgian, even.
You could see Mayor Pam Iorio's signature Riverwalk taking shape with the promise of shops, restaurants and parks on the Hillsborough. You could see what may one day be her legacy beyond this current economic slamming of the brakes.
There was a lone hot dog vendor, but people also ate takeout or sandwiches wrapped at home. They sipped beverages from coolers. They stayed mellow even as 15 minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes passed beyond the first pitch and without the game they came to see.
The mayor herself stood fretting on the sidewalk as workers feverishly tried to find the satellite feed that would make a giant Pena or Longoria miraculously appear. Backup did not work. At last, they got the game out of Detroit, on screen in all its glory, and nobody seemed to mind the out-of-town announcers, even.
The mayor high-fived anyone within high-fiving distance, a true fan, even if she had to tell people over and over that night that no, she will not be sporting a Mohawk any time soon.
Can Tampa pull this off on a permanent basis?
St. Pete is years ahead, with its downtown population and events like the bustling Saturday market. Tampa has plans for a Friday market, a future, more of what we had that night. Make it happen, city leaders and downtown boosters. Do not, excuse the expression, drop the ball.
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Now here's a sure-fire way to show Rays solidarity on both sides of the bay. Why not make Thursday "Let Your Employees Leave Early To Catch the Historic If Inconveniently Scheduled Game" Day?
Just thinking big-city here. Go Rays!