Two things pretty much summed up downtown Tampa for me when I got here more than two decades ago: a ghost of an old hotel, and the saddest McDonald's you ever saw.
Even in its faded state, the closed-down Floridan Hotel whispered what it once was. Opened in 1927 and once the tallest building in the city, this was where Jimmy Stewart stayed. Elvis, too.
By the time I got here, homeless people had made their way inside. Turkey vultures ruled its ledges. You could only peek in past barricaded doors and broken glass to glimpse a faded sign inside that said Sapphire Room — also known as the Sure Fire Room, the story went, for the odds of meeting someone interesting over cocktails.
But people moved to the suburbs and the Floridan was sold, and sold again, and finally was too expensive to bring up to code. Still, even in a downtown shut down by sundown, the Floridan somehow always seemed ready to dust itself off and return to better circumstance.
Around the corner was one of precious few dining options if you worked nights, an old McDonald's as morose and empty as an abandoned train station. Then it closed, too.
Back then, Tampa seemed to me to be a small Southern city with a bit of chip, a gritty port town born of a unique immigrant blend, a place with really interesting history and politics. A river runs through it, and you found pockets of pretty where you least expected.
Fast-forward, and this town has won the job of hosting the biggest party in its history, the Republican National Convention and its accompanying 50,000 visitors. Today downtown has this buzzy feeling of preparty apprehension in a flurry of last-minute spit and polish. (Someone better remember to take down those stakes propping up those pretty new palms on scenic Bayshore Boulevard.)
And look around: hotels, museums, residential towers. A Riverwalk, a Tampa Bay Times Forum for hockey and concerts, a great lawn of a park. Restaurants, from Vietnamese to Spanish to organic pizza, some of which actually stay open after dark.
And no longer could our city slogan be: Tampa, Not As Bad As Jacksonville!
When it comes to the tangible benefits the city could see from the RNC, Mayor Bob Buckhorn peels off numbers: $150 million in "capital infusion" across the region. Then, the intangibles, those positive associations about the town for those who currently think of Florida as Miami and Orlando with some cows and highways in between.
Tampa can expect tens of millions of "mentions," Buckhorn says, introducing us "like we've never been introduced before."
Yes, the logistics of hosting thousands of out-of-towners will be a sure headache for locals. But assuming the news from Tampa is largely positive, the images the world sees could be like water against a rock, steady change, the kind to eventually turn a town unfamiliar into a place people wouldn't mind visiting. Living, even.
Millions of dollars later (they won't say how many), the vintage Floridan Hotel, 213 rooms and three penthouses, has been restored by the man who bought it back in 2005, Tony Markopoulos. It's booked for the RNC, according to a spokeswoman, and you can practically see uniformed doormen reaching for important cars at the curb.
In Tampa, no less. Like water against a rock, it doesn't sound so unlikely anymore.