When I arrived in Tampa more than 40 years ago, the powers that be began touting the village as "America's Next Great City." Who knew "next" took this long?
It's not as if Tampa hasn't grown, hasn't developed, hasn't become a place with a reputation for professional sports, incredible restaurants, lovely neighborhoods, a burgeoning arts scene, a beautiful Bayshore Boulevard and a pleasant Riverwalk.
We have come a long way from four decades ago, when cows were still grazing along Fowler Avenue between I-275 and the University of South Florida.
But there has been a large, lagging gap between wanting to be America's Next Great City and actually realizing the title.
That may be about to change, thanks to a mensch from New England, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who would appear, with the help of Bill Gates, to be on the cusp of transforming downtown Tampa into the thriving center of commerce that has eluded the city for so very long.
This is markedly different from a few years ago, when professional blowhard Donald Trump parachuted into town to announce plans for a skyscraper with his name on it to be built along the Hillsborough River. Trump was never to be seen or heard from again. The Great Pumpkin, who couldn't find Kennedy Boulevard if he was standing on it, only regarded Tampa as a place to refuel his jet. Vinik lives here. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in the Hillsborough County School District.
Over the past few years, Vinik has systematically assembled 24 acres in the Channelside District, including his recent acquisition of the moribund Channelside Bay Plaza shopping complex. Now he has partnered with bazzilionaire Bill Gates to help develop the property.
I'm no financial genius. But you have to believe Gates, who could buy Europe if he wanted to, doesn't cavalierly invest in stuff that is going to be a bust. Gates and Vinik are very smart guys who didn't make their fortunes by buying into the mood ring cartel.
Over the past decade or so, downtown Tampa has slowly come back from being a desolate, empty sanctuary for tumbleweeds to a growing urban enclave with thousands of residents and an emerging entertainment district with more bars and restaurants opening almost weekly.
And while cocktails and sushi are wonderful things, a city's downtown needs much more. It needs commerce of all kinds. It needs a visionary. It needs an entrepreneur. It needs a Vinik. Having Gates along isn't too shabby, either.
Mayors can only do so much, even the visionary ones. To be sure, in recent years Sandy Freedman, Dick Greco, Pam Iorio and now Bob Buckhorn effectively used the bully pulpit of their office to promote the city, advance an agenda and attract investment. But they can't write the checks to get the shovels shoveling.
That requires someone from the private sector with both the vision for the city and the financial wherewithal to make it happen. Enter Vinik and Gates.
For all its charms and even its funky warts, Tampa is in many respects still a parochial, somewhat sleepy Southern town. As the Seinfeld folks might say, "not that there's anything wrong with that."
But Vinik's money and his vision for Tampa's future could make the title of America's next great city within reach. After 40 years, "Next" might well have arrived. But who's counting?