It was 1999 and Tampa had just suffered the equivalent of a gut punch to black culture.
The Dorothy Thompson black history museum had closed. And the Florida Classic, the annual football game between Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman College, was bidding the city adieu for brighter lights in Orlando.
On a positive note, Tampa was slated to host the Super Bowl in 2001.
But what would African-Americans think when they arrived in a city devoid of institutions that reflected their heritage?
Samuel L. Wright, student ombudsmen at the University of South Florida, had the solution: a festival honoring black culture.
"If Tampa was this 'Next Best City' as it was being touted," said Wright, who sat on a board for what was then the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, "it would be a city that catered to a diverse community,"
Ten years later, the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival is one of the largest events in the area dedicated to black culture. And despite a slumping economy, it has continued to grow. Verizon is the title sponsor, and for the first time Busch Gardens will host the festival's formal gala. Organizers estimate more than 100,000 people will attend the 10-day festival.
Today marks the start of the events, which include a two-day street fair, roller skate jam, two Martin Luther King Jr. Day parades and a gospel stage play.
It's a big change from the first year, when the event lasted just two days and consisted of local artist performances in Gas Light Park. About 2,500 people showed up that year.
But the precedent set by the event was worth much more, said William Sanders, co-chairman of this year's festival.
"It was the first collaboration of the Tampa Bay black community in this way," said Sanders, a gospel music promoter. "It showed unity and that we could work together and be organized."
It's no secret that this area's black community suffers from a geographical disconnect. While Tampa and St. Petersburg are touted as a part of Tampa Bay to outsiders, those within the confines often see the cities as distant sisters.
"I think everyone from other places sees it as a regional destination," said Ken Anthony, who has been involved with the festival since 2001. "But those within have a rather parochial view."
The festival has tried to serve as a bridge, he said.
The festival's timing, the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, has made it a kick-off to a bevy of events honoring the slain civil rights leader.
The Tampa Bay Organization of Black Affairs' Martin Luther King Jr. leadership breakfast is a longtime tradition in the community. It's now listed among the festival's roster of events.
And a few years ago, St. Petersburg's MLK Jr. Drum Major for Justice Battle of the Bands and Drumline Extravaganza and subsequent parade came on board. With 10,000 attendees last year, it's among the biggest draws.
This year the Plant City MLK Leadership Breakfast was added to the schedule.
The festival has economic benefits for the region, said Steve Hayes, executive vice president of Tampa Bay & Co.
Those who attended the festival in 2009 spent about $164 per day and stayed an average of two days at hotels and private homes in the area, said Hayes, citing a study conducted by the Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council.
"It certainly gives us a way to talk to the African-American traveler and say: 'Here's something that happens in our community,' " Hayes said.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.