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Two people get to light Tampa's colorful icon

They have such sturdy, sensible jobs: Terri-lynn Mitchell, senior property manager of the SunTrust Financial Centre in downtown Tampa, and Roque (pronounced Rocky) Bellotti, the building's chief engineer.

But there is one seriously cool aspect to their daily duties: They get to color the night sky.

As city skylines go, Tampa's is respectable if maybe a little dull, the usual buildings trying to out-tall each other. At 36 stories, SunTrust is not the biggest, but at night, when the pyramid on top lights up, it is surely the most remarkable.

City boosters love to throw around words like "landmark" and "icon," but this is undeniably one for Tampa. The colors shine for miles. Sometimes, they move, like when it pulsed the bright red of a beating heart in February. The pyramid — actually a "ziggurat," Mitchell says — went green for St. Patty's and rainbowed up for St. Pete Pride. It has celebrated our Rays, Bucs, Bulls and Lightning, and recently our new Rowdies. Up there, even soccer gets a little respect.

From the condo balconies of nearby Harbour Island, from windows where downtown workers gaze out, the motif becomes the subject of debate. Mitchell routinely gets inquiries: What exactly do the colors up there right now mean?

Some are easy enough to figure out, like pink for breast cancer awareness, yellow like the bracelets for Livestrong Day, a red cross for, well, the Red Cross. You might get the Ikea grand opening (blue and yellow) and surely the Christmas tree.

But what about blue for World Autism Awareness Day, red and black for PACE Center for Girls, orange for the ASPCA? Nah, me neither. Mitchell says she's yet to turn down a request, though for the record you probably won't get them to do a little something for your boss on his birthday.

Those lights have done some ambassadoring. When Republicans came to town to see if we qualify for their 2012 convention, they saw red, white and blue. (And picked Tampa. Just sayin'.) When African-American Shriners came for their annual convention, traditional colors greeted them.

"When people find out what I do for a living, they love it," Mitchell says. We are standing atop the building beneath the metal skeleton of the ziggurat, staggering views of the city all around us, and I think: no wonder.

The job of lighting the sky can require tact: When we last hosted the Super Bowl, each team got half the lights. Those lights moved around, so no fan faced the constant sight of rival colors from his hotel window. The spring training Yankees do not get lights, because, well, we have a baseball team.

Mitchell and Bellotti point up to the death-defying catwalks where it used to take a four-man crew six hours to hand-replace color gels, all in the company of turkey vultures who like tall buildings. Since they switched to greener, cheaper-to-run LED lights, Bellotti works up a plan on his laptop. Push a button on a keypad upstairs, and they're on.

Out early one morning this week, I looked up in the just-before-dawn sky to see a bright blue background with pink sparkles atop the SunTrust, striking enough to make you stop. Now what was that theme?

None, as it turned out. The people who light the sky just like the sparkles.

Two people get to light Tampa's colorful icon 09/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 4, 2010 12:48am]
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