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Tampa's improving hotel vision

Tampa looks closer than ever to a convention hotel. The pieces that unraveled so many previous deals _ land, financing, tax credits _ are falling into place. Mayor Dick Greco and the City Council were right to invest public money in a project that has broad implications for Ybor City and the downtown waterfront. Now they must work creatively to keep the momentum going.

Of course, after 12 frustrating years, Tampa residents have reason to be skeptical. The city has offered public subsidies before. None has prompted a hotel developer to unearth a shovel of dirt.

But the prospects look better now, for several reasons. Tampa's hotel market shows signs of gathering strength. Ybor is a more developed tourist site than it was even two years ago. The Florida Aquarium has cut its admission price and focused its marketing effort. The new Ice Palace has fast become a popular venue, bringing hockey fans and concert-goers downtown. The roads along the Garrison Channel, which connect downtown to Ybor, are newly paved. These improvements will draw visitors to the historic district and help keep convention delegates entertained.

That is the long view of the hotel developer, the Host Marriott Corp., and one the city ought to share. Marriott will finance and build a 26-story glass tower along the Garrison waterfront. The city will spend $32-million during the next 20 years to lease space in and around the hotel, a reasonable sum considering the development potential and the half-billion-dollar public investment within the Garrison-Ybor district.

Greco deserves credit for sending Marriott a strong signal of support. Part of the attraction for both sides is that Tampa's convention hotel no longer must survive in a vacuum, economically or politically. That marks the most dramatic turnaround from previous deals.

The city, through its hotel leases, should tie the knot between downtown and Ybor City. The council should also support construction of a trolley between downtown and Ybor. The waterfront will not become a popular tourist or convention destination without convenient mass transit, which is one reason many locals avoid downtown or Ybor altogether. The city needs more answers before funding specific routes. It also needs to consider placing the trolley outside the control of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the chronically troubled bus system.

With development proceeding along several fronts, the city should focus its efforts within the Ybor-Garrison district. Greco and his top development aide, Fernando Noriega, have brought political muscle and results to the table. Now they need a detail person to color between the lines. Building a hotel takes more than vision, as Greco's predecessors learned. With proper planning, Tampa finally can turn the recurring vision of a convention hotel into a successful reality.