Who was buried beneath Water Street Tampa? Developer still won’t say.

Tampa City Council was told the remains were identified and properly exhumed. But their identities and ethnicity will not be made public, said Strategic Property Partners.
Construction continues on the Water Street Tampa redevelopment project in downtown Tampa in January 2019. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Construction continues on the Water Street Tampa redevelopment project in downtown Tampa in January 2019. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published July 18
Updated July 18

TAMPA — The nearly 200-year-old remains discovered in graves beneath the Water Street Tampa development last year were properly exhumed and turned over to their descendants — or “stakeholders” — for re-burial, officials told City Council on Thursday.

But the public still doesn’t know the identities of who was buried in those graves.

Strategic Property Partners, which is developing the $3 billion entertainment district, declined to reveal that information during the council session.

Executive vice president and general counsel Jim Shimberg said outside council chambers that, out of respect for the privacy of “stakeholder” groups he declined to name, the number of bodies and their ethnicity would not be disclosed.

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However, during the meeting Shimberg agreed with City Council member Orlando Gudes that eventually the new development will likely find a way to remember those who were exhumed.

“We will be working to do that,” Shimberg said, adding his company is working with the Tampa Bay History Center.

The one new piece of information that Shimberg did reveal was that bone analysis indicates the remains are not those of African Americans, which was a concern voiced last month by activists. They wondered if the remains belonged to members of the Garrison, a black community that formed around the Fort Brooke area after the old Army post was decommissioned in 1883.

Assistant city attorney Kristin Mora told council the remains pre-dated the Garrison era.

That would indicate the remains likely date back to the Fort Brooke era itself, when Tampa was being settled and Army soldiers skirmished with the local Seminole tribes.

“Before Tampa was Tampa at that point?” said Council member Guido Maniscalco.

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Strategic Property has remained somewhat coy since the discovery of the nearly 200-year-old cemetery during construction of the massive redevelopment.

The company announced in November that the graves had been found, but only after the news leaked. It said nothing more.

Emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times in May between the city and project consulting firm Cardno indicated the graves had human remains inside, but the developer would not confirm that.

In June, City Council voted unanimously on member Joe Citro’s proposal for the city to work with Strategic Property to make sure “all processes be exhausted to identify the remains as much as we can” by July 18.

The report says there were three grave shafts that had human remains but did not identify the ancestry.

“All remains have been claimed by the stakeholder communities for re-internment,” read a July 3 letter Cardno archaeologist Eric Prendergast sent to the city along with the report.

However, the letter stopped short of naming the stakeholder.

It said the remains were being stored “securely at an interim storage facility at Cardno’s Riverview office, pending re-interment.”

Cardno was hired by Strategic Property to lead the archeological and historical assessment work of the Water Street development.

The letter indicates the grave shafts were from the historic Fort Brooke-era Estuary Cemetery, discovered in August and that the remains were excavated using state guidelines between Feb. 11 and May 5.

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Fort Brooke is the military installation established in 1824 near the mouth of the Hillsborough River in what today is downtown Tampa. For decades, soldiers there waged war against the Seminole Nation.

The City Council asked for the report after Connie Burton, a longtime black activist, expressed concern that the remains belonged to residents of the Garrison.

If Seminole remains had been found there, they would be returned to the Tribe.

In May, Prendergast wrote to the city that Oaklawn Cemetery is where past remains from Fort Brooke have been re-interned, and that it may be the appropriate destination in this case as well.

In his July 3 letter, Prendergast said that following the discovery they secured the area with a 25-foot buffer and perimeter fence, contacted the Florida Division of Historical Resources and received authorization from “descent communities” — but does not identify who.

Strategic Property is the development firm created by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, the capital fund owned by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, to build Water Street Tampa. Vinik also is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Times.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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