When he founded Mel's Hot Dogs in the shadow of Busch Gardens in 1973, Mel Lohn saw promise along Busch Boulevard in both directions.
To the east toward Temple Terrace was open land dotted with trees, he said. And to the west, toward the interstate, besides Busch Gardens, were empty lots.
"There was so much future potential," Lohn said.
His business, at 4136 E. Busch Blvd., has become a Tampa institution.
But other than Busch Gardens and nearby Adventure Island, not much else in that section of Tampa has thrived.
Of particular embarrassment, Lohn said, is the two-mile stretch of Busch Boulevard from the interstate to McKinley Drive, where Busch Gardens' main entrance is located.
For tourists from around the world, that two-mile corridor colors their opinion of the city.
Today, it is adorned by cheap motels and inns, liquor stores, pawn shops and graffiti-covered industrial centers.
"It's an embarrassment," Lohn said. "Pathetic."
It's time, he said, for the city to transform that Busch Boulevard corridor and its neighborhoods into a proper "gateway to our best tourist attractions."
Mark Sharpe, director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, which seeks to bring development to north Tampa, agrees.
"When I ask someone on a flight what they know about Tampa, they respond, 'I've been to Busch Gardens,'" Sharpe said. "The perception of our community is based largely on the approach to Busch Gardens."
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment — Busch Gardens' parent company — does not release attendance numbers. But according to the Global Attractions and Attendance Report, 3.96 million people visited that theme park in 2017.
Busch Gardens' spokesperson Rebecca Romzek said they support improvements to "our area with continued collaboration with local government, law enforcement and business partners."
Still, Sharpe said Busch Gardens has done its job by creating a must-visit destination. Now, it is up to the city to do its job and clean up around the theme park.
Busch Boulevard was previously known as Temple Terrace Highway. But in 1968, the city renamed it to reflect its status as a gateway to Busch Gardens, which had opened nine years earlier. Adventure Island opened in 1980.
For decades, local leaders have focused on reinvigorating downtown and its surrounding communities, said Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, who represents the Busch Gardens area. Downtown needed attention, he said, but it also came at the expense of other places.
"The city has done all it can do in downtown,” Viera said. “It is time to look to other areas, and there is a lot of potential on Busch Boulevard. Presently, it is only the gateway to neglect."
Viera envisions a pedestrian-friendly boulevard with family-friendly hotels and locally-owned restaurants and shops that showcase Tampa's culture.
"We need to create a Busch Boulevard brand," Viera said.
Mel's owner Lohn said lowering the 45 mile per hour speed limit should be a priority.
“When the speed limit is 45, people go 60,” Lohn said.
That decision will be up to the Florida Department of Transportation, which is conducting a corridor study that includes that area and will be finished by 2020.
The Hampton Inn directly across the street from Busch Gardens is a "nice family hotel," Lohn said. But speeding cars "make that walk dangerous."
Crystal Lucas, front desk manager for the Hampton, said there's a crosswalk four blocks away, but cars don't typically slow down for it.
Another issue is homeless people asking guests for money, Lucas said. "I would like to see the area cleaned up. First impressions are important."
While not calling out any businesses by name, Councilman Viera is focused on the cheap motels and inns.
Last year, he toured some of those establishments with code enforcement and "was aghast at what I was seeing. These are near a premiere tourist destination but are not well kept and there are reasonable assumptions about what goes on at them."
Viera would like to require those businesses to have better lighting, keep surveillance tapes for up to six months and have guests provide identification even when paying with cash.
Such measures, he said, might scare away wrongdoers and force the establishments to clean up their acts. Unfortunately, Viera said, only the state can regulate hotels, motels and inns.
"What we can do is work with the police, code enforcement and the nuisance abatement board," he said. "But I am not satisfied with just that."
Crime is down along the two mile stretch of Busch from the interstate to Busch Gardens and surrounding neighborhoods, according to Tampa Police Department statistics. In 2014, there were 158 violent crimes and 632 property crimes in the area. By 2018, those numbers had dropped to 124 and 463 — decreases of 22 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Still, Viera said, there are also little things the city can do to help the area. More foliage on medians and on the roadside, for instance, and other forms of streetscaping.
"Developers want to go where there is a commitment by the city," Viera said.
Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada called Busch Boulevard a "conundrum." The city planted the current greenery in medians 10 years ago, but "beautifying private property is always a challenge" since they can't force the owners to do so.
"Busch Gardens has been a gem of our tourism crown for a long time," Corrada said. "We need to do more, but it will have to be a public-private partnership."
Tampa Electric Company is making a commitment, Sharpe of the innovation alliance said. This summer, he said, they will install colorful lighting on Busch Boulevard's I-275 overpass.
"Visitors first impression when they come to Busch Gardens will be a bright one," Sharpe said.
And he hopes the city approves a proposed development to be located on an eight-acre Busch Boulevard plot of land located right off the interstate.
Named the "Nikola Project" and developed by Euro Tampa, a company based out of Doral, it would boast a 127-room boutique hotel, 144 residential rental units and five restaurants.
This, Sharpe said, will inspire other "significant developments on both sides of Busch Boulevard that will make it a more attractive corridor."
The city typically focuses on neighborhoods with voices, said Councilman Viera. Until recently, it was something Busch Boulevard lacked, when Lesem Ramos formed the Terrace Park Neighborhood Association that includes Busch Boulevard near the theme parks.
"Our neighborhood roads need work," Ramos said. "There is a crime problem."
City Council, he said, should expect a steady dose of his association’s input.
Making the Busch Boulevard area around the theme parks more family-friendly, Ramos said, will help the surrounding neighborhoods.
"It should have been planned like that decades ago, but they missed that opportunity,” Ramos said. “So now we have to turn up the heat."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.