Daniel Ruth: Tampa takes a while to realize its potential, but 2018 looks promising

"When I first arrived here in 1973, Tampa was a gritty, bump and a beer, blue collar place. Indeed, what is now considered tony Harbor Island real estate in those old days was merely a scraggly spit of a landfill called Seddon Island. Who knew it had such potential, or even cared?"
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Ever since the city of Tampa was incorporated in 1855 during the first term of Mayor Dick Greco, our little hamlet has evolved and morphed and redefined itself.

And it continues to do so to this day.

When I first arrived here in 1973, Tampa was a gritty, bump and a beer, blue collar place. Indeed, what is now considered tony Harbor Island real estate in those old days was merely a scraggly spit of a landfill called Seddon Island. Who knew it had such potential, or even cared?

It often has taken Tampa a little while to figure out its potential. Part of its charm, I suppose.

But 2017 certainly saw the city awaken to a potentially brighter future, thanks to Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who finds himself in the unique position of literally remaking Tampa’s core downtown area.

Vinik’s $3 billion investment in transforming some 50-plus acres in the heart of the city into a commercial, retail and residential development is virtually unprecedented. Not since the Chicago fire perhaps has a urban core been almost completely redeveloped. Vinik prefers the name Water Street Tampa. But that’s no fun. I still like Upper Vinikvalia, or perhaps Greater Vinik Estates. But it’s his money.

Everyone on this side of the bay got all excited when the Tampa Bay Rays received permission from St. Petersburg to look around for a new home to play baseball. And they got even more lathered up when Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan announced that new spot may be a locale in Ybor City abutting the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

It still might happen. But now that all the frothing has subsided a bit, two questions remain: A) where do the scores of Rays fans park and B) who is going to pay for what could be a new ballpark estimated to cost between $600 million and $800 million? Details. Details.

When the late entertainer Ethel Merman wrote her memoir, the chapter on her marriage to the actor Ernest Borgnine was a simple blank page. The same might be said about Tampa’s 2017 progress on public transportation. Another year of — nothing, except yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. Oh, we did have a brief flirtation with a cross-bay ferry. It was very lovely. But it’s not coming back. Let’s move on.

Once again the Tampa Bay area dodged a windy bullet when Hurricane Irma shifted course a bit and spared the region a direct hit. Still, the storm was a reminder of just how vulnerable we can be.

Tampa became the focus of national attention as a serial killer stalked his victims in Seminole Heights. The tragic event also served a stressful trial by fire for then acting Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who came across as an accessible, self-effacing determined leader. It was a performance that rightly earned him the full-time job.

Elsewhere, though, the Tampa Fire Department fell victim to its own self-inflicted embarrassment when former firefighter Tanja Vidovic successfully prevailed in a federal lawsuit that claimed she had been sexually harassed on the job. It was a legal action that never should have made it to trial and only exposed a fire department loaded with good-old-boy sexists in its leadership ranks. Not one of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s — who failed to clean up the TFD, or settle with Vidovic — finer moments.

Buckhorn still has well over a year in office before he is term-limited in 2019. But already the chess pieces of succession are moving around the board. City Councilman Mike Suarez, who has been humming Hail To The Mayor for the past seven years is expected to run. Former Police Chief Jane Castor seems all but assured of jumping in, too. And there are a few other folks with all the name recognition of Millard Fillmore’s vice president (he had none) who delude themselves into thinking they can be mayor.

Then there is philanthropist and gray eminence David Straz, a wealthy captain of industry, who is noodling around a possible mayoral bid. Just why a fabulously affluent man in his 70s would want to be mayor is a mystery.

But whatever the answer, it sure ought to make 2018 worth sticking around for to see what happens next.

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