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HE TRANSFORMED DOWNTOWN TAMPA

He wore bow ties, loved equestrian sports and transformed a barren wasteland in downtown Tampa into Harbour Island, an enclave of million-dollar, waterfront homes where people flock every year to see dragon boats race.

Philanthropist and developer Finn M.W. Caspersen died Monday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Westerly, R.I., where he and his wife, Barbara, shared a summer home. He was 67.

"He envisioned much of what Harbour Island is today," said Dick Greco, a Harbour Island resident and former Tampa mayor.

Greco remembers when Harbour Island was still called Seddon Island. Back then, he said, Davis Islands residents complained about the dust that layered their homes and cars when winds blew phosphate particles across the channel.

As chairman and chief executive officer of the Beneficial Corp., Mr. Caspersen had the money to realize his vision of downtown residents living next door to shops and office space. He purchased Harbour Island for roughly $3 million in 1979.

"Now, two or three lots would bring what the whole island was worth at the time," Greco said.

In 1983, Mr. Caspersen told The American Banker that Harbour Island would be "the most unique development" in the United States. Former President Gerald Ford served as a management consultant for Beneficial. He hit a golf ball cross Garrison Channel during the island's groundbreaking ceremony that year.

"He not only changed the view of the eye of the island, but he made an enormous tax base for the city that no one talks about," said Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda.

In 1992, Mr. Caspersen recruited Jim Tarbet to work as vice president of operations at Harbour Island.

"He was ahead of his time in many aspects as it related to Harbour Island," said Tarbet, who is executive director of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. "He taught me to be a visionary."

Mr. Caspersen also helped secure the Tampa Bay Lightning's home at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Land development lawyer Ron Weaver said Mr. Caspersen had a sophisticated way about him and used international analogies to explain things, giving examples from Singapore or Hong Kong as well as New York and Los Angeles.

Mr. Caspersen graduated from Brown University and Harvard Law School in 1966. A room in the law library is named after him and at least two professorships are endowed in his honor.

Last year, his alma mater presented Mr. Caspersen with its highest alumni honor: the Harvard Law School Association Award for his leadership and support throughout the years.

Four sons - Finn Jr., Erik, Samuel and Andrew - followed in their father's footsteps and graduated from the school.

Mr. Caspersen recently ran Knickerbocker Management, a private investment firm that handled the assets of trusts and foundations.

"Much of what he did will live on," Greco said. "Harbour Island will be one of the things that will live on forever."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Biography

Finn Caspersen

Born: Oct. 27, 1941.

Died: Sept. 7, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Barbara; sons, Finn Jr., Erik, Samuel and Andrew

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