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Tampa's top pitchman sells city's development

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco jumps out of his black Lincoln TownCar and starts hugging everybody at the front door of Carlinos at Don Vincente de Ybor, a once-rundown clinic that's now an upscale bed-and-breakfast.

Greco spins through Carlinos' dining room, asking white-haired ladies who lunch: "You all getting enough to eat?" Enter Jack Shiver, developer of the place, and Greco grabs him for another hug.

"He was one of the first to gamble on Ybor," Greco gushes.

"Labor of love," Shiver replies.

When the historic inn officially opens next month, rooms will rent for a hefty $325 to $500 a night. For that, guests get a choice of wines and chocolate truffles, among other goodies. Shiver already is fully booked for 160 nights, including Super Bowl week, when the Red Baron pizza folks will take over the place at $500 a night.

Quite a contrast to the body piercing shops, tattoo parlors and rowdy bars that have kept those who can afford $500-a-night lodging far from Ybor City. But Greco believes new developments at Ybor City, Harbour Island and Channelside are going to bring a more sophisticated crowd to his town. His favorite idea: More residents will abandon the suburbs and return to new condos and high-rises popping up along the waterfront. "People are coming back and paying premium prices," Greco said, noting one lot sold for more than $1-million.

Indeed, he just moved from Tampa Palms to a new house on Harbour Island, shaving at least 26 minutes off the commute to his office. "This is it," Greco says. "My next move is to Myrtle Hill. That's a cemetery."

The mayor, who turns 67 today, doesn't seem quite ready for a pine box as he races through a two-hour tour of his prize developments. He displays the mania of a salesman trying to meet his quota as he gives a pitch on why his town is on a roll. And as with many a super-salesman, it's sometimes hard to tell whether Greco is more intent on selling his product (Tampa) or himself.

Tampa officials are hustling to close 15 different deals, ranging from corporate relocations to new hotels and condos, a chore that consumes much of Greco's time. His cell phone rings. "Fernando! Where are you?" he yells to his development chief.

Within minutes, Fernando Noriega Jr. joins Greco, walking a few paces behind. "Twelve-hour days are not unusual," Noriega says. "I'm a native like him, but he takes me to parts of Tampa that I haven't seen."

Greco says the Department of Business and Community Services estimates a 50 percent spike in its workload, reflecting the rush by new and existing businesses to build.

As they walk around Centro Ybor, the retail and entertainment complex that's rising around the historic Centro Espanol social club, Greco and Noriega reminisce. At age 19, Noriega proposed to his future wife at a Sunday tea dance. He recalls the band's music as he walks across the same wood floor that will soon be polished and ready for the opening of the new tenant, Big City Tavern. Greco points out the old family hardware store where his parents worked side by side for nearly 50 years. Recently, he took his 93-year-old mother to a show featuring drag queens at the Pleasure Dome, with a side trip to see a tattoo parlor. "She loved it," he said.

Greco likes to visit the work in progress, especially when he can ham it up with the crew in training at GameWorks, a combination arcade, bar and restaurant. He raced the GameWorks general manager on the Harley Davidson ride, where you climb on a motorcycle and speed through a winding video course dotted with pedestrians, palm trees and sharp turns.

"I left many casualties," Greco said of his ride. He insists that two Times editors climb on the Hogs to race. I hit a lot of concrete walls and ran over a few people, while Tom Scherberger, our Tampa city editor, crossed the finish line.

The mayor, who is already late for a lunchtime speech, is back in the sedan to show off another work in progress. Driving around 22nd and Lake in the College Hill area is a stark contrast to the glitz of new bistros and $500-a-night lodging. The shops are vacant. The houses in disrepair. In this area, the average family income is about $5,200 a year. "Most people never see this part of Tampa," Greco says.

There is some improvement. Public housing projects have been torn down and will be replaced with new town houses. "This is important to all of us," Greco says.

Plenty of work remains elsewhere, especially downtown. He hints that a developer is patching together some parcels to build residential and office space. He expects a grocery store will rise from vacant lots on the southern edge of Tampa Heights. And he even gave one more pitch on why the old police headquarters should house the FAMU law school.

"This is an excellent piece of property," Greco said of a building he had once portrayed as a dump. He recently gave his pitch for the building to university system Chancellor Adam Herbert, who has delayed a decision for two months. "It's a gorgeous building. They better get real. I think we were very generous."

Always the dealmaker, Greco quickly adds that "a lot of big office people come to see me" about the police building.

Greco and Noriega figure about half of those 15 pending deals will work out as companies and developers get wooed by other boomtowns in the Carolinas and Texas.

Recently, he hosted 30 chiefs from the local e-commerce companies that have cropped up by the dozens in recent years. Like many high-flying tech stocks that have been given a dose of reality by Wall Street in recent weeks, Greco realizes that Tampa's boom eventually will end.

"Nothing lasts forever," Greco says. "But I really believe this coast has been discovered."

_ Alecia Swasy is the Times' Assistant Managing Editor/Business.