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A marketing disaster

The financial collapse of Centro Ybor, the entertainment complex in Tampa's old Latin quarter, has sparked another round of hand-wringing over what went wrong in Ybor City. This must be the fourth or fifth time in the last four or five years that Tampa leaders have asked why the historic district still struggles as a tourist destination. This shouldn't be a mystery. There is little unique left in Ybor since the city unleashed unbridled greed. Service in the shops and restaurants is often poor, and many people have decided there are better places to spend time and money.

If anything, Ybor has developed just as the city planned. In the 1990s, the city allowed the bars and nightclubs to push out nearly everything that gave Ybor character. The charm of Ybor was always its funky restaurants and shops, its artsy cafes and clubs and the diverse group of people drawn to the red-brick beauty of the historic district. But these businesses were drowned out by the drink-special industry that changed Ybor's demographics and economics overnight.

Centro Ybor, which announced this month it would need a $16-million city tax bailout, was not the cause of everything that went wrong. Indeed, it attracted a mix of people, gave Ybor a jolt of much-needed retail activity and introduced many local residents for the first time to the historic district. But Centro's struggle showed a larger problem. Ybor never figured out whom it was marketing to. It thought being a theme park for drinking was enough, and it never realized that its solution to crime _ putting more cops on the street _ merely reinforced the image that visiting the place was a one-trick hassle to avoid.

The city has invested tens of millions of public dollars in Ybor, and it has a large stake in helping the district attract tourists and residents. The next steps should be to stick to a marketing plan, to center more of the Ybor experience around Tampa's rich immigrant history and to make residents more aware of how important Ybor's success is to the entire city. Improving mass transit to Ybor is vital. Express service in and out could allay the inconvenience of driving, parking or finding a cab.

The city framed Ybor's development as a choice between catering to people with money or people with Mohawks. In reality, a district that plays off history and the arts needs both groups to survive. The result was an Ybor with no loyal customers, where businesses changed almost by the week and newer and bigger became the driving force of economic development strategy. The makings of a turnaround are still there. Ybor is attractive and more convenient than many realize, and some businesses have opened or expanded to give visitors a slice of old Ybor life. Enriching the experience, and improving service, will help make Ybor a daily destination, not merely an option for Saturday night.

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