Hillsborough County just committed $17-million in tax money toward the new history center. It will be a fine addition to the downtown Tampa waterfront. But the history already here is starved for money — those grand, brick, ethnic social clubs that date to Tampa's birth as an immigrant city. Local officials need to dedicate money to maintain these buildings. Beyond being ties to our past, they anchor neighborhoods and form the basis of a growing niche called heritage tourism.
These clubs — the Centro Asturiano, the Circulo Cubano, the Centro Espanol de West Tampa and others — have some of the most historically significant architecture in the city. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, these century-old clubs were more than social gathering places. Their mutual aid societies were among the nation's first HMOs, and the medical care, education and citizenship services they provided were essential to Italians, Cubans and Spaniards working to integrate into American life. One building, the Centro Espanol de Tampa, is a National Historic Landmark for its "dramatic" illustration of daily life of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ybor City, the old Latin Quarter, is recognized by the federal government as a historic landmark, too, for having "the largest collection of buildings related to the cigar industry in America, and probably the world."
Yet these clubs have to depend on their own small memberships and what few grants come along to maintain their old and imposing buildings. Despite hosting thousands of visitors every year — and in the case of Ybor, being the No. 2 tourist draw in the county — these sites have no dedicated funding stream. That makes no cultural or financial sense.
Communities throughout Florida and across the nation have used bed taxes, which are charged to hotel rooms and other short-term stays, to preserve historic structures. That would be appropriate in Hillsborough. Or the city and county could leverage existing funds to attract public and private grants. Where to get the money is secondary; the point is to recognize the value these buildings have as symbols — and magnets for development. A University of Florida study noted recently that heritage tourism — visits to historic or cultural sites — contributed $4-billion to the state in 2000. That's why most counties that impose a bed tax contribute to preservation activities.
Having some of Tampa's most storied buildings locked away from public view or under-utilized simply because the city and community groups cannot maintain them is bad economics in a town that has invested so much in tapping the public's fascination with history. Local leaders need to commit money to help maintain these buildings and broaden the public's access to them.