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Spreading the word on SoHo

You may have seen him sipping a Pabst Blue Ribbon at Tiny Tap. Or listening to Mike Tozier, a slide guitar player, at the Dubliner. Or eating crab chowder at Mangroves.

Name the place in SoHo and Bill Sharpe can rattle off the bar specials, his favorite menu items and the weekly entertainment lineup.

And with good reason. He goes out around Howard Avenue and Old Hyde Park Village four to six nights a week. Last Friday night's itinerary, in no particular order: MacDinton's, Dubliner, 42nd Street Bistro, Po'Boys Creole Cafe, Whiskey Park, 717 South, Wine Exchange, the Rack, Tiny Tap, Jules Burt's gallery, Sangria's and Ceviche.

It's all research for sohotampa.com, a Web site devoted to people, places and issues in SoHo.

Sharpe, who goes by Mr. Bill, created the site in March to help spread the word about SoHo and its businesses. A three-year resident of Tampa, he had driven by Circles restaurant on Azeele Street umpteen times but never went in. When he finally did, he was blown away by the diverse menu and good service.

"I thought, someone needs to tell (people) what's going on," he said.

Mr. Bill kicked off the site on St. Patrick's Day, a big draw for many SoHo businesses. He and a few friends stood on street corners handing out fliers.

Since then, the site has attracted about 30,000 visitors. It features news stories and editorials by Sharpe, snapshots from local parties and events, and a pet photo of the month contest.

Mr. Bill seeks to inform and unite people about SoHo, a loosely organized area known for its independently owned restaurants and bars. Despite its enduring success, he says concerns about flooding, transportation and parking need to be addressed.

Like many people, he worries about more chains coming in, smothering the locals.

He writes about issues near and dear. He's peeved that HARTline's future trolley bus to Old Hyde Park Village isn't going to Howard Avenue and questions the city spending tens of thousands on the tiny Bern Laxer Park across from Bella's Italian Cafe.

The best compliment he ever got was from a longtime restaurateur who introduced him as the guy who knows SoHo better than anyone else. South Tampa socialite Colleen Yeatts, creator of MonkeyNerves.com, described him like Visa. He's everywhere you want to be.

Mr. Bill runs the site out of his one-bedroom condo at the Bayshore Royal at Howard and Bayshore Boulevard. A few friends help with stories and columns, but he's pretty much a one-man operation.

He tries to offset costs _ mostly his time _ by selling ads to businesses. Just making the contact, however, usually costs him a few beers or dinner.

"I can't tell you I'm making any money, but I'm having a good time," he said over a pint at the Dubliner.

Mr. Bill sells RVs for a living at Lazydays RV SuperCenter. He works about 60 hours a week, selling everything from $3,500 used trailers to $900,000 luxury motor homes. Before that, he owned Mr. Pub bar in Ocala, he said. In the 1980s, he was chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party.

He refuses to tell his age, but a good guesser puts him at about 50. Divorced and available, he loves old movies _ Meet John Doe is his favorite _ and has a huge sweet tooth for chocolate.

Forever a salesman, he knows every server and bartender on Howard. After hurricanes shuttered businesses for several days, he made a pitch on his Web site to get out and tip generously.

Sometimes his site gets him in trouble. When he wrote an article about stalled efforts to improve Bern Laxer Park, people were quick to point out errors. He ended up writing an apology with a corrected version.

He refers to it as his "Dan Rather memos" situation.

He has no lofty plans for the site and, in fact, has been surprised by the enthusiastic response. At the very least he hopes it spreads the word about SoHo as the place to be.

THE LAST DROP: As promised, Channelside's Labor Day fireworks postponed because of weather have been rescheduled. The new date is Oct. 1 at 9 p.m., hurricanes permitting, of course.

_ Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurstonsptimes.com.

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