TAMPA — Empty storefronts. Working-class neighborhoods bulldozed by urban renewal. Big rats running around on Ashley Drive.
Those were some of the old memories of downtown Tampa conjured up Tuesday by four past and present mayors of the city.
But after 25 years of work, there's a lot of progress: the Florida Aquarium, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the St. Pete Times Forum, new hotels, new condominiums, new parks and new museums for art, children and history.
"We have a downtown that's secure and feels good," former Mayor Dick Greco told a crowd of about 500 at the Tampa Downtown Partnership's 25th anniversary lunch.
Still, the mayors said there is room for improvement: more high-density development, more activities around-the-clock, more business-friendly permitting.
The first time Greco served, from 1967 to 1974, federal urban renewal had demolished many areas north of downtown.
Greco doubled street lighting downtown so it would look different. He moved to create the pedestrian marketplace that was Franklin Street Mall (since given back over to cars). And he traded the old city-owned fairgrounds next to the University of Tampa for UT land north of Cass Street.
His second time as mayor, starting in 1995, Greco brought in the Marriott Waterside to complement the Tampa Convention Center. Other hotels followed downtown and in Ybor City.
When Sandy Freedman became mayor in 1986, there was no plan for downtown. Working with community leaders such as H.L. Culbreath and Parke Wright, she changed that.
But Freedman also talked about the importance of being ready to react to unexpected opportunities. The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Aquarium came to town on her watch.
When former Mayor Pam Iorio came to office in 2003, she said downtown needed a focal point, a place where families felt comfortable. Appearing in a video recorded before she left on vacation, Iorio said she also wanted to open access to the Hillsborough River.
She did both with the creation of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and progress on the Riverwalk.
Looking to the future, Iorio said "downtowns are about density."
"You need very high density to have the kind of extremely vibrant urban environment that so many people seek," she said. "I hope we never get to the point where we're afraid of new projects and density."
Asked for her advice, Freedman suggested looking west.
"Downtown has to be 24 hours a day, so you have to program activities in downtown," she said. "St. Petersburg has that marvelous waterfront that they have protected as we are finally protecting our downtown waterfront, and they have something happening every weekend."
Freedman doubted that Tampa would build any major facilities downtown for a long time because of the economy. But if it does, she said everyone should "take a really long view" so they don't build something like the Tampa Convention Center, which she described as a good building that can't be expanded.
Current Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Freedman's protege, sounded less ready to write off the idea of doing another big project such as, say, a baseball stadium.
Buckhorn memorably says he doesn't want to be the boyfriend in any divorce between the Tampa Bay Rays and the city of St. Petersburg.
But that doesn't mean he won't flirt a little.
In recent weeks, Hillsborough County officials have speculated about ways they might keep the team in the bay area in case of a break with St. Petersburg. Buckhorn makes no secret that he would prefer a downtown site.
"I see the Tampa Bay Rays," Buckhorn said of the team, which was one of the top sponsors of the lunch and sent representatives to the event. "Welcome to, uh" — then his voice dropped to a husky whisper — "downtown Tampa."
The crowd laughed and clapped.
"I didn't really say that," Buckhorn said. "I'm sorry."
He wasn't, of course. And the crowd just laughed and clapped louder.