A dolphin. The mayor says he saw it just the other day, a big dolphin leaping high out of the Hillsborough River right across from where we are standing.
Which is at the soon-to-reopen Water Works Park, one of the projects Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is currently most excited about, which is why you can find him regularly tromping around behind its construction fences. If downtown's lovely Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is former Mayor Pam Iorio's legacy, this will be his.
Dubious about that PR-perfect dolphin, I turn and ask parks superintendent Brad Suder, who says yes, he saw it, too. Plus, manatees have come, probably to check out the waters from the restored spring bubbling up behind us as we take in a city park reimagined.
If you don't know Water Works Park, who can blame you. For years, this was a stretch of grass on a knuckle of river by I-275 north of downtown, largely unused except by the homeless and a maybe a worker dozing in a truck. Driving by, you might catch a slice of waterfront, if you were lucky.
With the grand opening in August, the city gets a glimpse of $6.5 million in changes across 5 acres: the playground and splash pad (with a giant yellow bucket straight out of Willie Wonka to spill water on kids below), pavilions, dog park, bandshell, gazebo, shady oaks, a kayak launch and floating dock, boat slips eventually, foot bridges across the spring, all with wide open views of the water, all on the Riverwalk winding into downtown. It's not so much a makeover as a transformation.
And in the old city water works pumphouse, the heralded Ulele restaurant opens via Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant — a too-cool, exposed-brick sort of place to make you say: Tampa? Okay, Tampa.
True story: The spring, the original water source for the city, was named for 19th century judge James. T. Magbee, reputed scalawag known for passing out drunk in gutters. In 2006, a teenager hoping to make Eagle Scout went to the City Council to win a more noble name — Ulele, Indian princess who saved the life of a young Spanish explorer. There's some Tampafied reimagining for you.
Coming out of a dismal economy and looking to push a city forward, this mayor has been Bob the Builder. To his credit, this includes parks, with two other major projects on the east and west edges of downtown.
Imagine, he says as we look out at padddleboarders skimming past, the Gasparilla Music Festival in the big park downtown connected by the Riverwalk to Water Works on one end and Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park near Channelside on the other, festival-goers with wristbands strolling venue to venue. This is a different city than the one I landed in 20-some years back.
Another park PR moment: We see a couple in running clothes trying to peer over a construction fence. "You guys are going to love this when it's done!" the mayor calls. "Can't wait!" the woman calls back. His currently posted mayoral "photo of the week" shows him in button-down and khakis riding the new teeter-totter in his park.
Idyllic as it is — or will be — no manatee comes to investigate on this day and we spot no dolphin frolicking. Then we see them — a school of small rays in perfect formation gliding past in a river you will actually be able to see. It seems a good sign.