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Rethinking Tampa Bay: Where to put the Rays and other local attractions

Say you could put all of Tampa Bay's sports teams, entertainment venues, tourist attractions and leisure spots into one big pot. If you were building a new city from scratch, what would be the first thing you'd pick to give your city a cultural identity? Which pro team would you rather have in your city, the Rays or the Buccaneers? Would you rather have the Tampa Theatre or Jannus Live? International Plaza or the Salvador Dali Museum? Bern's Steak House or the Original Hooters?

The Tampa Bay Rays want out of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg wants the Rays to stay. Officials in Tampa also want the Rays, but no one knows if there's money or land for a new stadium there. It's unclear if either city will do what it takes to keep baseball in Tampa Bay.

This whole debate got us thinking: Just how desirable a commodity are the Rays, anyway?

Say you could put all of Tampa Bay's sports teams, entertainment venues, tourist attractions and leisure spots into one big pot. If you were building a new city from scratch, what would be the first thing you'd pick to give your city a cultural identity? Which pro team would you rather have in your city, the Rays or the Buccaneers? Would you rather have the Tampa Theatre or Jannus Live? International Plaza or the Salvador Dali Museum? Bern's Steak House or the Original Hooters?

To find out, we combined two of this country's favorite pastimes — fantasy football and urban planning — into a little experiment. Two tbt* writers from opposite sides of the bay — Susan Thurston of Tampa and Jay Cridlin of St. Pete — sat down to "draft" attractions from around Tampa Bay to build their dream city. Call it SimTampaBay.

Some draft rules: The geography of the region cannot change — for example, Tampa can't draft Fort DeSoto Park, and St. Pete can't draft the Hillsborough River. Corporations (like Sykes Enterprises or the Home Shopping Network) are off limits. Draft a stadium, and you also get the teams that play in that stadium. After 32 picks, anything left on the board goes back to its city of origin. And finally, unlike in the Rays' stadium debate, money and land are no object.

A coin flip awarded the first selection to Susan and the city of Tampa. And with the first pick in tbt*'s Ultimate Tampa Bay Draft, she selected …

1. Susan: The St. Pete Times Forum is consistently one of the top venues worldwide and hosts the Stanley Cup-carrying Tampa Bay Lightning and pretty much everything else from Bruce Springsteen to Metallica to Disney on Ice. And, yes, the American Idol tour, but we won't hold that against it.

2. Jay: The smart money here says Raymond James Stadium — who wouldn't want an NFL team, and possibly a Super Bowl, in their city? But I'm bucking convention and going with Tropicana Field and the Rays, because I'd rather have 81 home games of Major League Baseball in my city than eight home games of NFL football. If a new stadium ever develops, my fellow citizens will hail me as a visionary.

3. Susan: I, too, could pick RayJay, but if you've got the one of the best airports anywhere, then you can fly to any city in America and go to a football game. Tampa International Airport is convenient, easy to use and more attractive than most. (Love the big paintings of planes in the new terminal.) It makes coming home from vacation that much more bearable.

4. Jay: Can't argue with you there. But I'm going to leap at the chance to steal Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs, the Bulls, Monster Jam, the Outback Bowl … and hey, if U2 comes back to Tampa Bay, they'll have a place in St. Pete to store their Claw. I now have the Rays and the Bucs. My city is shaping up nicely.

5. Susan: The world doesn't revolve around sports alone. (Besides, I've got Vinny Lecavalier. Who else do you need?) The arts soothe the soul — and make us feel smarter. The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts is among the best and a slam dunk for date night or mom's birthday.

6. Jay: You're right, the world doesn't revolve around sports alone. It also revolves around roller coasters. Which is why with my next pick, I'm taking Busch Gardens. Plop the park 10 minutes from the beach, and St. Pete suddenly becomes one of the most desirable family vacation destinations on the East Coast.

7. Susan: Careful now. There's more to life than having fun. We need to eat, too, multiple times a day. That's why I'm jumping to the top of the food chain and picking Bern's Steak House. It's known the world over and is the first place out-of-towners beg you to take them.

8. Jay: Go ahead, take Bern's. I'll get my ribeyes at Council Oak, the steakhouse inside the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. This is a partygoer's playground with awesome restaurants, clubs, gaming, suites and maybe the best pool in Tampa Bay. And I'll get their memorabilia collection, too. Wonder if they'd let me take that Radiohead guitar out for a shred?

9. Susan: All this food has me hungry for shopping. So I'll take International Plaza, home of Nordstrom's, Louis Vuitton and a gazillion other places to drain your wallet in fabulous style. Step outside on Bay Street and you've got food and drink options galore, from Cheesecake Factory to Blue Martini. Just thinking about all the sales tax revenue has my city bean counters giddy.

10. Jay: Last fall, we saw what downtown St. Pete would be like without Jannus Landing. It wasn't pretty. Now that an innovative ownership group has given the courtyard a much-needed makeover, it's more fan-friendly than ever. There's not another live music venue out there quite like Jannus Live. When it's hopping, downtown is, too. Noisy or not, the city needs Jannus in a big way.

11. Susan: The Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center. It's new and exciting, so we must have it. The Chihuly Collection gives the city something no one else has and sparkles like no other area museum. It just opened but is sure to draw big crowds from near and far who will likely venture out and see what else the area has to offer. And it comes from an artist who does the pirate thing well. We in Tampa love that.

12. Jay: How dare you! We've barely had time to play with the Chihuly Collection — it still has that new-museum smell! I could respond in kind and take Tampa's own swanky new museum, but instead I'll hang on to St. Petersburg's Salvador Dali Museum. I love the fact that something this inexplicably quirky rests in St. Pete, and we don't want to lose our rep as an art lover's paradise.

13. Susan: Easy, or I'll quit this job and go back to school at my next pick, the University of South Florida. Those minarets at UT were tempting, but I couldn't justify the steep tuition. Instead, I'll take the big school that could. President Judy Genshaft has done a bang-up job rising the school's national reputation, the whole Sami al-Arian thing aside. And she's not done yet.

14. Jay: You know, those minarets would look pretty good in St. Pete's skyline. I think I'll take the Henry B. Plant Museum inside the old Tampa Bay Hotel. You can keep the University of Tampa (no offense, Spartans); I just want the building. We'll convert it into the ultimate historic resort. Tourism wins again.

15. Susan: Speaking of helping tourism and the skyline, I'll get a double-whammy with the Don CeSar Hotel. Take it off the beach and it's still a top-notch destination packed with history, charm and luxury. Its pool area can wash away anyone's troubles, and doesn't the bright pink make you happy?

16. Jay: Almost every year from 1924 to 1961, the New York Yankees held spring training in St. Pete. Babe Ruth himself lived at the Vinoy Hotel. Now that George Steinbrenner has departed us, I'm taking Steinbrenner Field and bringing the Yankees' spring training site back to St. Pete, where it belongs.

17. Susan: My, my. I didn't have you pegged for going so heavy on the sports. And taking a Tampa legend when we're still in mourning? Tsk. Tsk. I may have to sic a lion on you from my next pick, Lowry Park Zoo. The zoo is a fun, relaxing way to spend an afternoon, especially with the kids or out-of-town visitors not in the mood for the beach. Its manatee hospital has helped save the cute creatures from extinction.

18. Jay: Speaking of saving things from extinction, I'm going old, old, 86-year-old school with my next pick: the Mirror Lake Shuffleboard Complex. Those in the know can attest to the artsy awesomeness that is St. Pete Shuffle on Friday nights. Plus, Cocoon filmed scenes here. Cocoon!

19. Susan: No offense to the Bloomin' Onion, but this next pick goes to the delightfully tacky yet unrefined Original Hooters in Clearwater. It may not be the classiest chain, but it represents good times, good beer and good women. Where else but Tampa would it earn this much respect? We'll take it, proudly.

20. Jay: Ouch, that one hurt. To ensure Clearwater doesn't suffer too much, I'm keeping Ruth Eckerd Hall. Like two of your top picks, it's a world-class theater and concert facility that draws in some all-time-great headliners: James Brown, Al Pacino, Ray Charles, Gene Kelly, Bob Hope, Dave Chappelle, June and Johnny Cash. I recently saw Ringo Starr there, and he's a friggin' Beatle.

21. Susan: The Ritz Ybor. This gem of Ybor City has been around for nearly 100 years, and for good reason. It's a first-rate venue for just about any occasion and over the years has hosted everything from silent films to live nude shows, foam parties, black-tie affairs and rock concerts. Lady Gaga, Jesse McCartney, Lifehouse and Arctic Monkeys have graced the historic marquee, not to mention Maxim magazine's Super Bowl party.

22. Jay: Ikea. You see how you like driving 35 minutes for affordable shelving.

23. Susan: It's not a bullet train, but the Teco Streetcar is the region's most popular, nostalgic and fun example of mass transit. Who doesn't like seeing and hearing the shiny yellow trains chug-a-lug through Channelside and Ybor City? And, if we're smart, it will lead to transit that we really desire.

24. Jay: While I greatly admire the Museum of Fine Arts' stately architecture, I'll take the stunning new Tampa Museum of Art. In addition to hosting brilliant artwork from around the world, it transformed the Tampa landscape, and I think it can do wonders for St. Pete's, especially if you place it alongside the Mahaffey Theater and new Dali Museum.

25. Susan: I love the idea of being able to roll my suitcases across town and jump on a cruise ship to Margaritaville at the Port of Tampa. No planes to catch, no hotel rooms to rent. Just grab a ride and, within minutes, it's 5 o'clock somewhere.

26. Jay: If you'd told me before I moved here that you could enjoy an evening of affordable family fun at a dog track, I wouldn't have believed you. But here we are. Animal-rights advocates may brand me a barbarian, but I can't imagine St. Pete without Derby Lane. The 85-year-old track is the world's oldest continually operating greyhound racing facility, and in recent years they've upgraded the poker room, restaurants and lounges. Plus, Ocean's Eleven filmed here. Ocean's Eleven!

27. Susan: Cake or biscuit? It's one of my favorite questions ever, so I'm taking Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City, home of the best strawberry shortcake for more than 50 years. Presidential candidates love the place, including Barack Obama, who slurped down a shake. Its huge strawberry fields are the reason we pay homage to the fruit every year.

28. Jay: I have to admit, that's a fantastic pick. To ensure I can still get great food close to home, I'll bring Skipper's Smokehouse over to Pinellas County. Face it: This ramshackle barbecue shed is a beach bar without a beach. The hot blues, cold beer and conch fritters would go great with the shimmering blue-and-orange gulf waters at sunset.

29. Susan: We're coming down to the finish, so why not squeeze in the Florida Craftsmen Gallery, a favorite among statewide artists and anyone with a fondness for original and inspired works. This nonprofit gallery triples as a gift shop, exhibition hall and educational center for artists across Florida. I like the idea of being able to knock out most of my Christmas shopping in one place.

30. Jay: I'm amazed the Tampa Theatre has lasted this long. I hate to pry the historic arthouse cinema away from Tampa, but it would look so good in downtown St. Pete, within walking distance of all our cool shops and restaurants. The "St. Pete Theatre" doesn't have the same ring to it, though. Maybe I'll see if 1-800-Ask-Gary wants to buy the naming rights. (Kidding!)

31. Susan: I was hoping to keep the Tampa Theatre by default but couldn't justify picking it for the sole reason that the seats are too darned uncomfortable. That said, at the risk of outraging half our readership, I'm choosing the Mons Venus, known the world over for its naughty lap dances. Because, like momma always said, it's better to be known for something than nothing at all.

32. Jay: Dang! I was hoping to steal the Mons with my final pick. How can I top that? I could grab the Florida Aquarium for the penguins, MOSI for the IMAX or Dinosaur World for the sheer fiberglass spectacle. Instead, I'll play it simple and choose the inexpensive but wonderful La Teresita Restaurant. Some days all you want in life is a cheap Cuban sandwich with plantains and yellow rice. (And perhaps a naughty lap dance or two. But we can drive to Tampa for that.)

DRAFT POSTMORTEM

Susan: Oh, how I love my new city of Tampa. It's not perfect — what city is? — but it has all the fixings of a great place to live, with just enough edge to keep it interesting. While I feel a little naked without baseball or football, I'm content not to define my city in terms of strikes and first downs. My newly minted Tampa is all too happy to watch the Rays stadium mess play out to the west. And the Bucs? They're not exactly tearing up the field. What I'm more excited about is nabbing two St. Pete darlings, the new Chihuly collection and the Don CeSar Hotel. I've kept the most famous eats around in Bern's, added an infamous one with the original Hooters and can't fathom why shopping-challenged St. Petersburg didn't pick an upscale mall. It's a shame to lose SheiKra and the rest of the thrills at Busch Gardens, but Busch Boulevard has always been a crummy place for it anyway.

Jay: I'm not going to lie: I'm a little nervous about this mini-Vegas by the sea I've created in Pinellas County. A casino, an NFL team, a theme park, the media circus that is A-Rod in spring training … things are starting to feel a little Myrtle Beachy. On the other hand, I also managed to keep all the little things that make St. Petersburg unique — the shuffleboard courts, the greyhound racing, Jannus Live. Add Skipper's Smokehouse and the Tampa Theatre to the mix, and you're talking about a truly wonderful destination on the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe it'll even be enough to get people to drive to St. Pete for a Rays game.

Rethinking Tampa Bay: Where to put the Rays and other local attractions 07/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 3:04pm]

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