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Oldsmar leaders fighting battle for the bulge still

Ransom E. Olds had invented the Oldsmobile when he decided in 1915 to invent something far more ambitious _ Oldsmar.

It was a big dream with a little logic.

Olds bought 37,000 acres at the crown of Tampa Bay, directly astride the only land route between Tampa and St. Petersburg. He envisioned the biggest city in the region, with a port, industries, hotels, farms and 100,000 residents.

Oldsmar boomed briefly. Then Florida's economy soured, and people drifted away. A hurricane in 1921 sent a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet into town, drowning the investments of R. E. Olds.

That set a pattern that endures today. Inspired by Oldsmar's location as a waterfront crossroads, city leaders pursue ambitious dreams. Then they get thwarted somehow.

Let me count the ways:

Emerging from the 1921 hurricane, Oldsmar plunged lustily into the Florida land boom. But the city's leading promoter was caught selling underwater lots. The scandal prompted the town to change its name for a few years to Tampa Shores.

In 1934, the Courtney Campbell Parkway was completed, giving Pinellas and Hillsborough residents a way to drive to each others' counties without passing through Oldsmar. Oldsmar became known as a hick town.

In recent decades, Oldsmar was the last Pinellas city to feel this area's boom. It added only 1,100 residents during the 1970s. But in the 1980s, the population suddenly tripled to 8,300. Environmental officials slapped a moratorium on the city's overworked sewer plant.

During the '80s, Tampa lawyer Ed Rood proposed a development that would add 1,300 residents. But the project suffered from regulatory setbacks, numerous changes and, eventually, a loss of City Council support. Last year, Rood sold his still-vacant 135 acres.

In 1992, city fathers were shocked to learn that Pinellas County was buying nearly 1,700 acres in northern Oldsmar for the Brooker Creek wildlife preserve. The move dashed expectations that the Forest Lakes and Cypress Lakes subdivisions would add 10,000 Oldsmar residents. A new sewer plant with that much capacity already had been built.

Despite all this, Ransom Olds' original logic lives on. The populations on each side of Tampa Bay indeed are growing toward Oldsmar, just not as fast as developers hoped.

"A lot of people went broke speculating on land in that area," said Craig Sher, president of the St. Petersburg-based Sembler Co., which is trying to find more tenants for the overbuilt Woodlands Square shopping center in western Oldsmar.

But Sher and others see how the boom has reached East Lake Road, and they feel better.

Oldsmar is getting tantalizing signals.

Two housing subdivisions, accounting for 400 upscale homes, were announced last summer. The year-old Tampa Bay Skating Academy has been so busy it's adding a second ice rink. And there's even talk of casino gambling at venerable Tampa Bay Downs.

Ironically, the growth edging toward Oldsmar has brought one more impediment toward growth. The main roads are so clogged with people passing through that they deter people from moving in.

But true to Oldsmar's history, its mayor is optimistic. The worst bottleneck, Tampa Road, should be widened in about four years, says Jerry Provenzano.

"When that happens," he boasts, "we're going to explode."

Bill Coats is the Palm Harbor bureau chief for the Times.