Tampa Bay can be forgiven for casting a jealous eye to the 2012 Olympics, which open today in London. This region, after all, was the driving force behind Florida 2012, the unsuccessful bid to bring the Summer Games to the Sunshine State. But today's opening ceremony offers more than a chance to be wistful and dream about a moment that might have been ours. The local effort had dividends of its own, and it's time the region thought big again.
Despite all the corrupting influence that money, politics and wayward pride have had on the Olympics, the event is still without equal as a cultural phenomenon across the globe. No other competition brings the world closer together, as new generations of age-old friends and foes alike battle to share the glory of the winners' stage. And Olympians are role models who give back over time by inspiring self-confidence among youth in their home countries.
This quadrennial event has always had a bang that outlasted its two weeks of competition. In London, for example, already one of the world's greatest cities, the attention from hosting some 11,000 athletes and millions of spectators sparked a building boom over the past decade. The old industrial east side has been transformed with a new Olympic Park, and the legacy of billions of dollars in Olympic spending on water, transportation and other public infrastructure will live on after the Games in the form of new housing, educational and health care facilities. This is the meat and bones that makes a city livable, competitive and able to grow. And that brings us back to the before and after of Florida's failed bid.
Tampa attorney Ed Turanchik and other local leaders worked on the Florida bid for four years, raising $11 million, more than any of the other seven U.S. cities in the hunt. While it failed, the bid brought the region together, creating ties and relationships that ultimately brought billions in federal funds for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando (before Gov. Rick Scott foolishly vetoed the project). The plans for the Olympic Park and Village became a blueprint for a downtown Tampa master plan. And they laid the seeds for the ongoing effort to reconnect the central business district to surrounding neighborhoods.
The people behind Florida 2012 are gathering at a Tampa hotel tonight to reconnect and watch the opening ceremonies. They should use the occasion to look at taking another run at the region's biggest drawback — a lack of mass transit options that earned the local bid a "zero" on transportation from the U.S. Olympic Committee. London is in a different league when it comes to history and pageantry. But to become great, cities — like athletes — have to keep stepping forward and reaching for the gold ring.