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Could food drive rebirth of Tampa's downtown?

There are all kinds of ways to jumpstart a downtown. Last Saturday I drove to Sarasota to see the building that's supposed to do it for them. It's not an art museum. The city that describes its geographical location as "The Cultural Coast" decided to skip art and go straight to food.

Whole Foods Market, which opened last month, is a big deal to foodies and people who want valet parking and shopping carts with bud vases. But the store is also the first part of Whole Foods Market Centre, a $55-million condo and retail project. The whole shebang is just a hop, skip and jump from the Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Opera, Selby Public Library and Sarasota News & Books.

It was New Year's Day, so you might expect Whole Foods to be dead, but that afternoon people were sitting around at the outdoor tables, drinking cappuccino or smoothies from the market's juice and coffee bar. The view from the outdoor tables is of the new parking garage, which shows you people will sit outside anywhere. The garage was built with the help of $3.3-million from the city, which threw in another couple million or so to the developers. Why? Sarasota wanted more people living downtown.

Looks like they'll get them. The whole immediate area seems to be under construction. The high rise condo building on the other side of the parking garage is on its way to completion, new townhouses are almost ready and the city has given money to another big project that will combine retail, residential and a hotel.

It's hard to tell what this part of downtown will look like when it's all done. It used to have a quaint, small scale feel, but Whole Foods Market, for all its glamour inside, is a big box. The parking garage looks like a parking garage. It was not designed to reflect anything indigenous to downtown Sarasota, as were the red brick parking garages in Ybor City.

Also across from Whole Foods is the new, not-quite-finished bus terminal. I didn't know Sarasota even had buses. It's a contemporary design, and at least the way it looks now, it's jarring to see it here. Still, in a city better known for convertibles, it's a good sign someone is paying attention to public transportation.

Around the corner from Whole Foods is the relatively new Selby Library, a building you can't miss. A huge white structure supported by fat rounded legs, it looks almost extraterrestrial, the Library that Swallowed the Earth. Inside it's fabulous, and, get this, so popular it had to impose a two-hour limit in the parking lot.

On the January calendar of events at Whole Foods, Selby Library is scheduled to present "a story time with treats" in the market's cafe. Whole Foods also gave the Friends of the Library funding to produce a cookbook, Uptown Appetite.

It's no surprise that Whole Foods, a chain of organic supermarkets that started in Austin, Texas, a college town at the top of lists of Best Places to Live, would team up with a library. The company told Sarasota Magazine that the higher the level of education, the more likely a person will be a Whole Foods customer.

So what does all this have to do with us? We live in Tampa.

This is what: When people move to Tampa from a bigger or, I guess, smarter city, they expect to find a store like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. When they don't, they're astonished and dismayed. I'm tired of telling people new to Tampa that, no, there is no place like it here.

Yet.

Wild Oats Natural Marketplace is on its way.

Like Whole Foods, it's a chain of organic supermarkets that started in a top-of-the-list college town, Boulder, Colo. Wild Oats won't be jumpstarting our downtown, however. It won't be anywhere near there. It will be in Walter's Crossing, the retail project under construction at the former site of Jim Walter's landmark twin buildings at Interstate 275 and N Dale Mabry.

This isn't a place that's easy to define or even call a neighborhood, but Wild Oats may make it a destination.

"Meet you at the juice bar at Wild Oats?"

It could happen.

Sandra Thompson, a Tampa writer, can be reached at sthompson63tampabay.rr.com. City Life appears on Saturday.

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