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A light for past, future

With just days to go before the Sulphur Springs Water Tower lighting ceremony, a crew worked feverishly this week to pretty up the land around the tower.

They installed a sign at the corner of Florida Avenue and Bird Street and replaced brush under trees with mulch.

Hard work? Maybe, but it sure beat removing pigeon and cockroach droppings from inside the tower, a task completed by a crew of specialists in 2003.

Once the mess was gone, the tower was ready for ground lights, a new ladder on the inside, and lights on top.

Beginning Saturday, the 214-foot Sulphur Springs Water Tower will be illuminated every night. Supporters of the project say the lit tower, visible from Interstate 275, will bring attention to a neighborhood that's been neglected and will highlight an important piece of Tampa's past.

"It's a magnificent structure," said Alan Wright, a planner for the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, who has lived in Sulphur Springs for 20 years and drove the effort to light the tower and put a park around it.

"This will help in signaling to people, "Yeah, the city's making a commitment to make this area better.' And if the city's willing to do that, individuals will be willing to come and do that as well," he said.

By all accounts, a test-run of the lighting on Dec. 18 elicited "oohs," "aahs" and stares from passers-by.

"People slowed down on the interstate," Wright said.

Josiah Richardson built the tower in 1927 to provide spring water to a community he was developing along the Hillsborough River. Instead of just a metal structure, he built one that resembles a castle.

"It's one of the few water towers in the country that has been designed architecturally," said Tom Johnston, the city parks department planner who has been overseeing the cleanup of the tower and creation of the park.

Richardson also built a shopping arcade that some call Florida's first mall, a water slide, bathhouse, alligator farm, hotel and tourist cottages. A flood in 1933, followed by the Depression and World War II, dashed Richardson's dreams.

His historic structures gave way to the interstate and other developments.

The tower managed to escape destruction. It was named a local historic landmark in 1989, which protected it from demolition.

Linda Hope, who grew up in Sulphur Springs but now lives in Land O'Lakes, remembers watching movies at a drive-in theater next to the tower.

"The tower itself, we never paid that much attention to it except for the hardy souls who would get drunk and climb it in the middle of the night," she said.

Graffiti covers the inside walls of the tower all the way to the top, where some etchings date to 1945, Johnston said.

Hope deemed the lighting of the tower, "dandy."

"It's going to be gorgeous when people see it," she said.

Preparing the water tower for lighting and restoration hasn't been cheap.

The city and Hillsborough County purchased the 13 acres around it in February 2002 for $2.85-million, with the state reimbursing some of that money.

Removing the pigeon debris and other garbage cost nearly $9,000. Replacing a rickety old ladder that leads to the top of the tower with a metal one, essential for installing the lights, cost $90,000.

Future plans call for painting the tower, replacing windows and repairing the parapet.

"The building itself is in excellent shape," Johnston said. "It's a solid poured concrete building; the walls are 10 inches thick. There are no structural problems with it."

A state grant for $96,000 and $113,000 from the city will pay for a restoration plan and construction of part of a trail that will run under the interstate and connect River Tower Park to Sulphur Springs Park.

Additional grant and city money will fund restoration of the river shoreline, construction of a fishing and observation pier on the river, and park shelters.

The community has also pitched in.

Residents, including Joe Robinson, president of the Sulphur Springs Action League, volunteered over the summer to pick up trash and clear invasive plants from along the river.

"It's an icon," Robinson said of the tower. "There aren't many items that are left that were built back in those years."

Robinson moved to Sulphur Springs in 1997 from Lutz. He was attracted by its location, close to downtown, the airport, Busch Gardens and other Tampa and St. Petersburg sites. He owns a house on the river on a street shaded by old trees.

"It's like a country town in the city," he said.

But his neighborhood suffers from a bad reputation as a high-crime area with run-down houses.

"It's a neighborhood that was forgotten, but a lot of people are interested in bringing it back now. It needs some tender loving care and it's very doable to bring it back," Robinson said. The lighting of the tower "gives the people a sign of hope that change is coming."

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