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City Council finds the courage to say no

I was happy to watch the sunrise Friday and realize Tampa was still standing.

Hadn't you heard? The city I call home was teetering on the brink of ruin.

The economy would collapse, businesses would flee and Tampa's standing as a place of growth and prosperity would diminish.

Only one thing could save the city from certain doom. A hotel. Not just any hotel, mind you, but a 25-story, 905-room luxury Marriott, the biggest on Florida's west coast, right across the street from the Tampa Convention center, backed entirely by tax dollars.

My tax dollars.

Without this $145-million investment, the city would surely suffer. "The loss would be enormous and perhaps incalculable," the Tampa Tribune declared in a lengthy editorial. Why, the newspaper warned, without this hotel the city would never again land a Super Bowl.

Yikes! No Super Bowl? Talk about your trump card. That raised the stakes considerably. Not only was the economy in jeopardy, the one thing Tampa cares most about was at risk _ its image.

It was up to the Tampa City Council to save the city.

I had long ago concluded that a tax-subsidized hotel was a dreadful idea. Not only was it taking government way beyond its usual role, putting it in a business where it doesn't belong and risking limited tax dollars in the process, I didn't think the numbers added up.

Neither did the real experts _ the people who operate hotels and would have to compete with a government-financed hotel.

I kept thinking how difficult it is to get a sidewalk built in my neighborhood, and how terrible the flooding can be after a normal downpour, and kept wondering how Mayor Sandy Freedman, who made revitalized neighborhoods the centerpiece of her eight years in office, could justify this lavish expenditure.

But I was resigned to the inevitable.

The usual arsenal of political firepower had been arrayed behind the hotel. Freedman was for it. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the head of Tampa Electric Co., the publisher of the Tampa Tribune, all had enthusiastically endorsed the deal.

That used to be enough to get anything done in Tampa. You get that crowd together and anything is possible. A lot of people were opposed to the project _ high-flying business people as well as average citizens _ but few of them spoke out against it.

"There are a lot of coat-holders in this town," said businessman Harry Teasley. He had mounted a one-man crusade against the project based largely on philosophical grounds. He got a lot of support, but few people were willing to climb into the ring with him and risk the wrath of the mayor and her business buddies. Of course, they were all for Teasley taking it on. Which he did, with enthusiasm, writing letters, commissioning a voter survey, running a full-page ad in the Tribune at the back of the same section in which the newspaper had endorsed the project.

"Do you think there's any chance of stopping this thing?" Teasley asked me a couple of weeks ago.

I really didn't and told him so.

But I was wrong.

Four members of the Tampa City Council on Thursday found the courage to say no. They responded to Teasley's philosophical arguments, the hotel industry's worries and the neighborhood's needs.

The mayor's response was predictable. She said the council wasn't courageous but scared. The council had supported the concept all along, she complained, but now that it was five months from the city elections, they wimped out.

If that's true, I say thank God for elections.

I take Thursday's 4-3 vote as a sign that Tampa may be growing up, rejecting the steam-roller approach to government and listening to the voters, not allowing others to define us but deciding for ourselves what makes a city great. It's not tall buildings and convention centers but strong neighborhoods. It's a feeling of community, the notion that the people are in charge.

The irony is that the mayor had encouraged exactly such thinking from the moment she took office, vowing to "Keep Tampa Tampa," empowering the neighborhoods, encouraging the creating and growth of civic associations, emphasizing the basics, like parks and playgrounds and sidewalks.

I thought about all that as I stood watching in my front yard watching the sunrise. The city was still standing and it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Tom Scherberger writes editorials for the Times in Tampa.

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