Whatever happened to the Next Great City?

Published Oct. 24, 1991|Updated Oct. 14, 2005

A reader came by the office the other day with a package under his arm. This reader was one of those rare birds, a Tampa native, and he had a question on his mind.

What has happened to his hometown, he wanted to know. Was it dead in the water? Did Tampa know what it was anymore?

But he wasn't all that somber when he spoke. If anything, he had a puckish sense of humor.

The package proved it. It turned out to be a decade-old copy of Town & Country, one of those glossy magazines aimed at the rich and, if not famous, then famously self-absorbed.

This issue, from January 1980, included a big spread on Tampa, at least as it was then seen through the eyes of local potentates.

Tampa "is a town trembling on the brink of vibrant cityhood," the story breathlessly proclaimed. "Change is palpable in every quarter."

Downtown was coming alive, the article predicted. There would soon be "in-town condominiums," as well as "shops, restaurants, nightlife _ and people." Also "The arts are coming of age and are ready to bloom."

The story was profusely illustrated with small, black and white pictures of the wheels and their wives, who were in charge of all that was good and holy in Tampa, at least as they defined it.

This included their private clubs and Gasparilla, of course, not to mention all their plans and dreams for their town.

Everybody in the pictures was white, except in two, where the featured black people were somebody's hired help.

Reading all this was comparable to reading your high school yearbook, years after you graduate. You can't believe how naive and self-centered you were back then.

This is understandable, however, in 17-year-olds. In grown-ups, such behavior is usually inexcusable.

In fairness, though, Tampa was on the brink of something special back then. Remember all that business about America's Next Great City? About Super Bowls and the Sun Belt and national influence?

I came to Tampa three years after that Town & Country story appeared, when talk of big things was on everybody's lips, when John Naisbitt was proclaiming Tampa a Megatrends city, when Bob Martinez was a rising star of national Republican politics.

You would have had to be comatose back then not to be caught up in the fever. This city was going places, just the way Town & Country proclaimed. That was one of the reasons so many of us moved here. We wanted in on the action.

Nobody could see how the economy would sour, and how, before that happened, Orlando's growth would eclipse ours. And who knew just how resistant some of the old Palma Ceia crowd would be when newcomers, and new thinking, demanded that they open up their restricted enclaves?

How could anybody figure that Tampa would end up stalled when the '80s were over? This was certainly not what Town & Country predicted.

Don't think for a minute that I take any pleasure in pointing this out. The reader who brought by this magazine doesn't either. He's a little worried. So am I. He's distressed. So am I.

That Town & Country story was packed _ it was a standing room only crowd, in fact _ with people who were supposed to be Tampa's leaders.

At the moment, you don't hear much about these leaders or, as the magazine so exuberantly said, "Tampa's titans."

They turned out to be mortal. Some died, others simply faded, and there's nobody around yet who looks ready to replace them.

Occasionally, some prominent types appear on the business pages explaining why the local economy will turn around soon, or why their bank's profits are down so, or why they went bankrupt, or why the president of an NFL team, because she happens to be a woman, has no right to enjoy the privileges of membership at a local country club.

These folks look wondrously silly. But I'm not sure they realize it.

You hardly ever hear from the politicians among the titans. The greatest public issue of the moment is hot dog vendors in T-back suits or some other semisex scandal that lands Tampa Bay on national TV.

The reader who came by wanted to know, and so do I. What's going to happen to Tampa?

And who's going to lead?