Tampa Bay is not the name of a city, locals say. History proves it was.

The term is used as an all-encompassing descriptor of the cities around the body of water. Not everyone likes it.
This photo of downtown Tampa overlooks the Tampa Riverwalk, University of Tampa, and Hillsborough River in April. Guess what this land used to be called?
This photo of downtown Tampa overlooks the Tampa Riverwalk, University of Tampa, and Hillsborough River in April. Guess what this land used to be called? [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 16, 2022|Updated Nov. 19, 2022

TAMPA BAY — Mario Núñez has opinions, strong ones, about how Tampa should be promoted.

What should a Tampa resident be called?

Tampeño,” said Núñez, host of The Tampa Natives Show that celebrates the city’s history. “End of debate.”

The Tampa flag?

“Hideous,” he said. “End of debate.”

But one Tampa-centric question in particular gets Núñez’ blood boiling hotter than a pot of crab chilau. What does he think of the term Tampa Bay to describe the area?

“I hate it,” he said. “Tampa Bay is water. Tampa Bay does not have a zip code. Therefore, it physically does not exist.”

Actually, it used to be a physical place with a postal address, but more on that later.

Since the 1970s, Tampa Bay has been the national, mainstream, and all-encompassing descriptor for the group of the cities around the body of water. Decades later, locals remain split on the term, with residents on both sides of the bridge fearing it strips cities of individuality.

“The problem is that it was meant to clarify the region but is now used as a name of the cities,” Núñez said. “It’s supposed to be the Tampa Bay area, but it has been truncated to Tampa Bay and caused confusion. How many times have we heard a football announcer say that Tampa is Tampa Bay, or a baseball announcer say St. Pete is Tampa Bay?”

The reaction

The Tampa Bay Times regularly receives angry and mocking emails, calls, and social media messages for using the term Tampa Bay. The Tampa Bay History Center and Visit Tampa Bay said they do, too.

Tampa seems more passionate about the issue, at least on social media.

On Facebook groups dedicated to memories of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, the Times asked residents how they feel about their cities being grouped into Tampa Bay.

In a 24-hour span, no one from either Pinellas County city replied but nearly 200 from Tampa did.

“People live in Tampa. Fish live in Tampa Bay,” Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco replied.

“I grew up in Tampa. Not Tampa Bay,” Lynette Boyd-Fleming commented. “To me, it feels like the city is trying to be renamed when I hear newscasters and others refer to Tampa as the bay.”

“I think it’s so silly how everyone gets so offended by Tampa Bay,” Monica Mendez-Östling wrote. “I am a third generation Tampa native, and I can understand the difference between Tampa the city and Tampa Bay the area.”

“Tampa = Merry Christmas. Tampa Bay = Happy Holidays,” Dylan Breese posted. “One’s inclusive. The other doesn’t like St. Pete.”

Joey Vars, the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel historian and curator of the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, expected the Pinellas apathy.

“As a local, I don’t take much umbrage with it and don’t see a lot,” he said. “Every time we look out into the water, we see Tampa Bay. So, we’re part of Tampa Bay. The only time people get fired up is when they don’t want their city to be clumped in with Tampa.”

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The boundaries

Beyond being a body of water, what encompasses Tampa Bay?

There does not seem to be a consensus. Visit Tampa Bay is the tourism arm of Hillsborough County. But Visit St. Pete/Clearwater also describes itself as part of Tampa Bay.

“I look at it as Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco,” Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Steve Hayes said. “But you could probably pull in Manatee and Sarasota if you wanted to go with a broader picture.”

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee plus Hernando as part of Tampa Bay, but not Sarasota. The Tampa Bay Partnership says its coalition of regional business leaders includes the same five counties plus Sarasota, Citrus and Polk.

Patrick Harrison, Visit Tampa Bay’s chief marketing officer, said Tampa Bay could even extend “as far south as Collier County ... It’s a regional moniker. It is not just a body of water anymore.”

The Tampa Bay History Center describes itself as a regional museum, but that region is hard to define.

“Hillsborough used to encompass what we now know as Ocala, Lake Okeechobee, Hernando, Port Charlotte, Pinellas and Manatee,” the history center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said. “So, we tell those early stories.”

When detailing more modern history, the center primarily sticks to Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco, but can venture further out.

“There aren’t clean boundaries when you are telling the history and stories of this area,” said Kite-Powell. “But, before there was Tampa, there was Tampa Bay.”

The history

It’s not uncommon for a city to be named after a bay.

There’s Coos Bay in Oregon, Green Bay in Wisconsin and Bodega Bay in California.

And Tampa Bay was the original name for what would become the city of Tampa. Yes, really.

The name Tampa Bay first appeared on maps to describe the body of water in the 1760s when England purchased Florida from Spain and began to “anglicize Florida,” Kite-Powell said. Then, when Fort Brooke was erected in the 1820s in the present-day Water Street neighborhood, the military named the land area Tampa Bay.

“If you wanted to refer to the area before any cities existed, what else are you going to say, the Greater Fort Brooke region?” said Andy Huse, a University of South Florida librarian.

A typed copy of the order establishing the Post Office at Tampa Bay. The order is dated January 1832. The post office opened two months earlier.
A typed copy of the order establishing the Post Office at Tampa Bay. The order is dated January 1832. The post office opened two months earlier. [ Courtesy of the United States Post Office ]

On Nov. 21, 1831, the area received its first post office.

“The post office was originally established as Tampa Bay,” said Jenny Lynch, the United States Post Office historian. “The post office name was changed to Tampa on Sept. 13, 1834.”

But letters continued to reference the area as Tampa Bay.

The University of Oklahoma has 127 pages of letters written to and from Fort Brooke spanning 1837 to 1839. The Times counted Tampa Bay being used 77 times and Tampa 24 times as the dateline or area descriptor.

Tampa was established as a village in 1849, organized as a town in 1853 and incorporated as a city in 1887.

Still, “numerous letters and maps from the 1840s through the mid 1880s referred to Tampa Bay in a general catch-all sort of way, in both a military context ... and as a potential tourist destination,” Kite-Powell said. “The explosive growth in the mid 1880s coincided with the diminished use of Tampa Bay as a regional identifier.”

A copy of a Seminole War letter from 1837 identifying Tampa as Tampa Bay.
A copy of a Seminole War letter from 1837 identifying Tampa as Tampa Bay. [ Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma College of Law Digital Commons ]

Even then, Tampa’s first major tourism destination was named the Tampa Bay Hotel when it opened in 1891. Today, that building is part of the University of Tampa’s campus.

Then in 1912, land that had previously been a part of Hillsborough was incorporated as Pinellas and the new county sought to establish its own identity.

The marketing

Tampa Bay continued to be used to describe the area through the early 1900s, but Suncoast emerged as a tourism brand for Pinellas in the 1960s. Civic and governmental agencies adopted it, too.

The term is still used by the county’s transit authority and the fire and rescue district that covers the municipalities of Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores. But Suncoast has been phased out as a tourism brand, largely due to the popularity of Tampa Bay.

The late Leonard Levy, credited for helping to bring the Buccaneers to Tampa, once told the Times that football is behind the national use of the term Tampa Bay. Business and political leaders worried Tampa was too small for the NFL, but knew that they could get a team by marketing an area that included St. Petersburg and Clearwater. That is why the team was named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and not the Tampa Buccaneers when the NFL awarded the city the franchise in 1974.

The additions of other sports teams further fueled the name.

The Lighting play in Tampa and the Rowdies and Rays in St. Petersburg, but each is called Tampa Bay in a marketing effort to invoke fandom from both sides of the bridge.

“I don’t even like our sports teams going by Tampa Bay. Should be Tampa Buccaneers and Tampa Lightning,” Chris Espinosa said on Facebook.

Núñez thinks the Rays and Rowdies should use St. Petersburg. “Let them promote their city,” he said.

Busch Gardens added Tampa Bay to its name in 1993 and Tampa’s convention center did so in 2001. The St. Petersburg Times became the Tampa Bay Times in 2012. The Port of Tampa changed its name to Port Tampa Bay in 2014.

“It rolls off the tongue,” Núñez said. “It’s easy to say. Hey, hey Tampa Bay. Good day Tampa Bay. I get it. But it has replaced Tampa.”

At least Tampa is in the name Tampa Bay, said Manny Leto, executive director of Preserve the ‘Burg that works to save St. Petersburg’s historic buildings. “St. Pete has different feel and vibe than Tampa and are not particularly interested tying themselves to Tampa. A lot of St. Pete people I know would rather be their own city than Tampa Bay.”

That was evident in 2012 when St. Petersburg’s mail processing centers were moved to Tampa and the U.S. Postal Service announced that St. Petersburg’s mail would be postmarked Tampa or something else to reflect the region, such as Tampa Bay.

City, business, and civic leaders spoke out against the measure, saying it would rob St. Petersburg of its identity. The decision was overturned.

Still, Tampa native Leto said of the Tampa Bay debate, “I do feel like I hear it more in Tampa.”

But, in 2019, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long wrote a Times op-ed that chastised the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, the Tampa Bay Chamber and other Hillsborough-only organizations for using Tampa Bay.

“The name ‘Tampa Bay’ should be used to represent us all — Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties,” she wrote. “Especially when it comes to issues where a regional strategy will and could provide the greatest return.”

Hayes, of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said his agency prefers to market the cities. But there are times, depending of the audience and especially to international markets, where they feel the need to explain that those cities are part of the Tampa Bay region due to the amount of exposure the sports teams get.

That’s what Visit Tampa Bay’s Harrison hopes locals accept. The cities in Hillsborough and Pinellas are unique as individuals but stronger as a collective known as Tampa Bay when promoting the area.

“The name sticks in the mind of people who live outside the region,” he said, “which is obviously who we are marketing.

Núñez is not swayed.

“I will say this until I’m breathless,” he said. “I was born in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. It was in Tampa. It was not in a body of water. End of debate.”