Glance at the Tampa skyline today, and you’ll see new buildings stretching across the horizon. But before its resurgence in the past two decades, downtown stood as a dead zone, with few shops and no grocery stores or even people after dark. Its waterfront felt inaccessible. Few people lived there.
Step by step, city leaders, developers, and members of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, a neighborhood improvement nonprofit founded 35 years ago, have resurrected the city’s urban center. Today, downtown Tampa attracts visitors with its riverwalk, parks and scores of independent restaurants. Thousands call it home.
The Tampa Bay Times spoke to two people with front-row seats to what downtown Tampa was — and how it grew. Dick Beard led the Partnership as president in the late ‘80s. Lynda Remund is currently the CEO.
The following interviews were edited for length and clarity. Remund and Beard were interviewed separately.
Rewind a couple decades. Can you paint a picture of what downtown Tampa looked like?
Remund: I hate to use the word desolate, but it was pretty vacant at the time. In the late ’80s, we had some retail. All that started to shut down eventually. We didn’t have any residents. There were a few single family homes at the time — just a handful on the East side. But there wasn’t a consistent population to sustain efforts like shops and grocery stores. We didn’t have the amenities we have now. Curtis Hixon Park wasn’t formed yet. The Florida Aquarium wasn’t here. The Ice Palace, now called the Amalie Arena, was not here. And we didn’t have any big office towers until the Bank of America Plaza and 100 North Tampa.
Beard: When five o’clock came around, all the office workers left, and it was empty. There weren’t places to eat or to stay the night. Maybe a few bars?
Remund: So much potential, but we weren’t using it. A city thrives on its downtown. It’s always a destination. That’s where people gather. That’s where they go for activity. Thankfully, the leaders then and the [Tampa Downtown Partnership] saw the vision of what this place could be.
And it’s changed, of course.
Beard: Dramatically. It’s a 24-hour area instead of a nine-to-five town now.
First of all, there’s been several million square feet of office space added. Then in the ’90s, a lot of housing popped up. That came about partially because the Florida Aquarium and Tampa Convention Center were built, which anchored the area. None of the development happening today — from [Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff] Vinik and such — would be possible without that.
Remund: There’s over 165 restaurants. We have fabulous parks and hip grocery stores. Retail is filtering in. The arts and entertainment is here. It’s come a long way.
Did the waterfront play into all this downtown development?
Remund: The Hillsborough River wasn’t used very much before. It always seemed like a barrier from the Central Business District over to the west side of the river. Now it’s not. It’s a connector, especially with the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. We see people walking from the business district, to the park, to the river, to eateries. It’s one continuous downtown experience.
You see the most fabulous cities around the world, and their waterfront is a main architectural part of the community. Having the Riverwalk built here in 2015, which stretches from the aquarium to Tampa Heights, has created that same pedestrian feel. You can see paddle-boarders, canoes, water taxis. I’m looking out my window now watching the manatees.
Who is downtown Tampa for today?
Beard: People from all over the country who want an urban environment with warm weather. With Tampa building so much in the Northeast and West, it’s poised to grow.
Remund: We are seeing a younger crowd particularly. The highest population is 25 to 34. Only 11 percent are 65 or older. Forty-seven percent are married, and 39 percent are single. We are also finding that this generation isn’t necessarily into vehicles much. They want that 10-minute walk around their residence. They love public transportation, scooters, trolleys and boats.
Tampa was labeled as an “emerging” downtown before the pandemic. How has these past 18 months affected that?
Remund: We struggled just like every city in the world when the pandemic hit us. The return to workforce in the downtown area is at 34 percent — give or take. There may have been a couple businesses that closed down, but we had very little of that. Everyone wanting to be outdoors in the beginning of the pandemic kept the place vibrant.
In a year (or five years), what do you envision for downtown Tampa?
Remund: We have the four corners of our downtown well situated. We have Water Street to the South, the University of Tampa to the west, the Heights to the North. The fourth corner to the East could be this planned connection from downtown to Ybor City. The expansion on Water Street certainly is going to bring so much to downtown, too. More than a dozen buildings are slated to open there in the next few years.
Beard: I’d personally like to see more boats. We also don’t really know how the USF Medical School or any of Vinik’s developments will affect the area. All for the better, hopefully. I just hope the traffic doesn’t get too bad.