It's a safe bet that most Tampa residents don't know that the Historic Monument Trail Busts along the Riverwalk are set at the exact height of the person honored, or that the shade structures looming over Kennedy Plaza were specifically designed to offer optimal shade during the hottest weather.
Jason Carroll knows.
After all, it's his job.
Carroll, 38, left the Florida Aquarium after 10 years, where he rose to the role of Director of Sales and Events, for a year-long stint in Washington, D.C. as a Regional Account Executive for Visit Tampa Bay.
Although he loved promoting the Bay Area to businesses around the country as a premier destination to hold their annual events, he disliked the harsh D.C. weather and wanted to return to Tampa, where the Friends of the Riverwalk had a new opportunity for him as its first full-time executive director.
Carroll sat down by the Riverwalk with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Libby Baldwin to talk about his love for Tampa and his ideas for the Riverwalk's future.
Was being a performer a natural transition into event planning?
Both involve thinking on your feet, being resourceful. Actors don't get sick days; it comes with an inherent work ethic. The event business is tough; Forbes magazine ranked it one of the five most stressful jobs in the world, and the other four were military. So you've gotta have a certain kind of work ethic to do that. After 10 years with the aquarium, it was time to explore.
So I took a position with Visit Tampa Bay, our Hillsborough County tourism commission. I had to live in D.C. to sell Tampa. My partner tried; he moved up with me. He's an elementary school teacher here. He didn't like it, but he was able to get his job here back after a leave of absence. He said he was going back to Tampa, and that got me moving.
Why did you have to go to D.C. to promote Tampa?
The D.C. mid-Atlantic region is a giant market for Tampa. They have over 20,000 associations in that one area, and all of those people plan meetings and events in cities around the country. So my job was meeting with about six to eight thousand of those companies to get them to consider bringing their groups to Tampa. There were 68 people doing the same full-time job for other cities because there's so much business in D.C. So it was fun, but I needed to get back here. Not just for family reasons, but because I missed it. It's hard to leave a place like this, with weather like this and the pace here. D.C. is very corporate all the time; I wore my flip-flops twice there. Not okay.
And then you came back, and your focus became the Riverwalk.
People get confused about what our organization does; they ask if we fix busted lights. Absolutely not; the Riverwalk is owned and managed by the city of Tampa, and they do a great job. Our job is trying to activate it; we want people out here, we want to give them reasons to come. We want people connected to it. If we walk down to the end here, we've got a paver program. We've had over 2,000 people purchase a paver. I have to go down right now after we're done and verify one; someone's proposing over a paver and I've gotta know exactly where to tell him to go. And those people will be connected to this Riverwalk forever because they're part of it.
Any exciting things planned for the Riverwalk's near future?
We've got Riverfest coming up on May 6-7; Curtis Hixon, MacDill Park, the art museum, the Straz, the convention center and the Marriott are all doing their own events for it. It's a lot of free entertainment and activities. We'll light up hot air balloons at night and have live music. New this year, we're doing a hot dog festival, and on Saturday we're having weiner dog derby races. On Sunday night we'll end with music on the lawn from the Florida Orchestra. They bring about 7,000 people out for a free concert in the park ending with fireworks. We will manage all the food, beverage and staging — it's a really big event for us.
Can you tell me more about how your background as a performer qualifies you for your new position?
I just think there's a creativity level involved. I want a family or tourist in Tampa to not even really have to look up a calendar of events for the Riverwalk. I want them to know if they want to do something that day, they can just check out the Riverwalk and something will be going on.
That sounds ambitious.
It's not just my organization that's going to do that; it's not just the city. It's the entire community; artists, musicians. The venues. Armature Works is opening up; we've got the museums and the Performing Arts Center. But we've gotta get to a place where the Riverwalk is just its own place to go. We've got great attractions in Tampa, and this is one of them. It's not just a park, it's an attraction. But it's free and the public owns it.
Are you a big fan of the water?
I love the water; I'm in the market for a friend with a boat. I love to be able to see the water. Here, you can have the river, the bay and the gulf. I mean, you can be at the ocean, so I love it.
Why are you so passionate about Tampa?
It really grew on me. I moved here and thought, this is really great, I like the pace, the people seem nice. I didn't realize when I moved here that I was moving to "the South;" it was just Florida in my head. But there's a Southern hospitality here that I've really became accustomed to. I've learned to like sweet tea; where I grew up, that's unheard of.
What's your favorite thing about the Riverwalk?
I come out here a lot, and I always have. I think my favorite thing to do is sit out at Sail Pavilion; it's a great place not just to see the water and the Riverwalk, but see people enjoying it. I like to just sit there sometimes and watch the diversity there, from people on their lunch breaks to people with strollers or pets or bikes. It's a great place to see all the ways to incorporate the Riverwalk.
Do you want to do this job forever?
I'm not a job hopper.; I like to stick around and make an impact. I feel like I'm in a really good place to start, because just look at it … it's beautiful. People are enjoying it. When I walked up here, there were a whole bunch of moms with their strollers and kids doing mommy yoga. They come here and they exercise a few times a week; I love it. There's just nowhere to go but up.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her @LibBaldwin.