Back in the day, the guy Straub Park is named after and the guy Plant High School is named after had vastly differently views on the purpose of a waterfront. Is it a public amenity to be preserved as a park, like William L. Straub thought, or is it an economic tool for shipping and commerce, like Henry Plant said?
With the Riverfest returning Friday and Saturday (May 5-6) to celebrate Tampa’s hugely successful Riverwalk, it looks like Straub won the argument. Or did he?
As Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center noted, maybe this is more of a class issue.
Sure, nice parks and a waterfront are great for tourism and selling houses to rich people. But a thriving port brings well-paying jobs to the working class. Tourism jobs typically pay minimum wage.
Michigan journalist Straub purchased what was then the St. Petersburg Times in 1901, and in his editorials pushed hard against the idea of transforming St. Petersburg into an industrial port town, to compete with Tampa. He and real estate developer C. Perry Snell championed the vision of a city filled with waterfront public parks, similar to Chicago’s Miracle Mile. To this day, it takes a public vote to develop any property on the city’s scenic waterfront parks.
In a corner of the St. Petersburg Museum of History in downtown St. Petersburg, there’s a display about the debate, showing a 1900 picture of Frank Allston Davis and his power plant located where the St. Petersburg Yacht Club is now. He wanted to develop the city’s shoreline into a sprawling commercial harbor to compete with Tampa’s thriving port. Straub instead mustered enough support to get a 1909 law passed to preserve 7 miles of the waterfront as parkland.
University of South Florida history professor Ray Arsenault outlined how unusual this was for its time in his book “St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950.” He notes that the “City Beautiful” movement, which preferred a public space that could be enjoyed by all, was nearly unheard of.
“A lot of people thought it was ridiculous,” said St. Petersburg history museum director Rui Farias. “Parks don’t pay property taxes.”
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Meanwhile, in Tampa, railroad tycoon Plant had brought Port Tampa a rail connection from Jacksonville in 1884 and was expanding his empire to include a Tampa-Key West-Havana, Cuba trade. The waterfront was a highway for commerce, not picnics.
Plant and his allies were not keen on St. Petersburg competing with Tampa’s port, Farias said.
“We were going to match Tampa. We were the biggest port east of New Orleans,” Farias said. “Tampa quietly started lobbying the state of Florida and the federal government to prevent St. Petersburg from having a deep-water port around 1902.”
You could argue that Davis and Plant won the argument through the 1980s, when Tampa’s port brought a cruise ship terminal, big imports and a downtown that had the best-paying jobs, while St. Petersburg remained a sleepy city nicknamed “God’s waiting room.”
In 1976, then-Tampa Mayor William Poe first championed the idea of the Riverwalk. The city sold wooden planks that you could buy and put your family’s name on. The planks were used to build what was called the Riverwalk, though detractors said it was little more than a fishing dock.
Decades passed and various Tampa administrations struggled to find the money and urgency needed to buy and preserve Tampa’s waterfront as a park. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who served from 2003 to 2011, put it in the spotlight by hiring Lee Hoffman, now retired, who spent 12 years as the city’s official Riverwalk development manager.
“I don’t think there was ever anyone who said it was a bad idea, but they didn’t think the timing was right,” Hoffman said. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
It took more than $33 million in grants to piece it all together and, in 2014, Tampa finally opened its Riverwalk, a 2-mile ribbon of parkland along the Hillsborough River that now seems like a no-brainer. Some 100,000 people use it every month, according to the Friends of the Riverwalk, a nonprofit organization that works with the city to promote the waterfront parks. Dozens of bars, restaurants and water taxis make a living off of how popular it is.
How did Tampa go so many years not noticing it had a waterfront?
Powerful people like Plant and Peter O. Knight, a city council member and lawyer for the Florida Central and Peninsula Railroad and the Seaboard Air Line Railway, secured the river and port as the city’s economic engine, said Kite-Powell. And that helped boost the city’s middle class.
“The jobs coming to Tampa’s waterfront now are service industry jobs,” Kite-Powell said, “while port jobs typically pay really well.”
It wasn’t like Straub’s supporters, such as Snell and Hamilton Disston, were pushing their waterfront plans out of the goodness of their hearts, Farias said.
“How did Snell and Disston make their money? Selling big beautiful homes to rich people. He’s not selling a home to a factory worker,” Farias said. And tourism as an idea was relatively new, and has always benefited the wealthy.
St. Pete’s downtown has experienced a renaissance in recent years, with a booming restaurant scene that leads to packed spots on any average Tuesday. The former mayor of Tampa even bought a place in downtown St. Petersburg because there was so much to do. Farias said that shows Straub was right.
The Riverwalk now connects a series of parks along the Hillsborough River, as well as restaurants and attractions such as the convention center, Tampa Bay History Center and Tampa Museum of Art in one pleasant stroll. It has proven so popular, there are plans to extend the Riverwalk west to connect to more neighborhoods.
“It’s not like F.A. Davis and the others were wrong, he just had a different vision,” Farias said. “You need the mixture. You have to create places where people can come and live and work but you still want beautiful parks and beaches because that’s what attracts people here.”
Keith Greminger, an architect and a board member of Friends of the Riverwalk, called it “a 40-year overnight success story.”
“For a long time the river was where the jobs were, and people didn’t live in that area. It was all industrial,” Greminger said. “Only now is the river being identified as the city’s center and not the edge of the city.”
If you go to Tampa’s Riverfest
Riverfest is a free two-day festival along the Tampa Riverwalk, 5-10 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, all centered near Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. Read about all the details here.