Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Garage an apt tribute to Bill Poe

Bill Poe always was sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of Tampa mayors.

Many other former city chief executives have been honored with parks named after them, including Julian Lane, Curtis Hixon and Lloyd Copeland. Others have their statues. There's Dick Greco Plaza, and Nick Nuccio has his parkway. Sandra Freedman has a tennis facility named after her. Bob Martinez has a fancy sports complex.

And we all know in time that Pam Iorio and Bob Buckhorn eventually will be enshrined in some laudatory fashion, all in bronze bas relief.

But Bill Poe? His name is best known among Tampa residents for an Ashley Drive parking garage.

Such a humble, almost off-hand recognition of Poe's contributions to the city he loved used to strike me as rather dismissive. He deserved better. But in the days following his death last week at 82, being remembered with a parking garage seems rather fitting, capturing the personality of the man himself: simple, basic, businesslike and self-effacing.

Poe could be thought of as a sort of accidental mayor. In 1974, Mayor Dick Greco resigned from office to work for shopping center mogul Ed DeBartolo. The odds on favorite to succeed Greco was then City Council Chairman Dick Cheney, who died suddenly after only two months as acting mayor. That opened the door for Poe, who grabbed the mayor's office in a special election before winning a full term the following year.

In the 1970s, with the exception of the annual Gasparilla Bacchanalia, Tampa was still a sleepy, blue collar Southern city. No pro football team. The now hoity-toity Harbour Island was a barren dump called Seddon Island. Much of Hyde Park was considered declasse. Cows still grazed along Fowler Avenue between I-275 and the University of South Florida. Poe had his work cut out for himself to drag the city into a modern era.

And he did. I don't think Poe would object to being viewed as a building block mayor who created initiatives and began the early stages of projects his successors would complete and take credit for accomplishing. That's why they got the statues and he got the parking garage.

It was Poe who began Tampa's downtown redevelopment. It was Poe who started the earliest stages of the Riverwalk. It was Poe who began dragging the Tampa Police Department from an almost In The Heat of The Night culture to greater professionalism. It was a long pull.

But it is also true Poe's legacy will be associated with a battle he fought and lost. In 1996 Poe, an insurance executive in private life, dedicated $1 million of his own money to a legal challenge that pitted him against his friends, Tampa's entrenched power structure, in opposition to spending public money to build Hellooooo Sucker stadium for a private business interest, Tampa Bay Buccaneer owner Malcolm Glazer and his tots, Coo-Coo and Ca-Choo.

Poe didn't think it was legal. He didn't think it was ethical. And he lost. But he was still right. Poe weathered many storms in his life. His business took a horrible hit in the wake of the 2004-2005 hurricane season. But he was a good and decent man who stood for principle, often at a terrible financial cost.

The next time you exit the Poe Garage take a look around the city and remind yourself that much of the progress you see was first begun by Bill Poe. They don't build statues to singles hitters. But they should.

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