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Downtown Tampa gets another long-delayed moment in the spotlight

A conference of leaders from downtowns nationwide will dive into the future of urban cores of cities like Tampa.
A TECO Line Streetcar is reflected in a building, left, in the Water Street Tampa area on May 19. The $3.5 billion Water Street development will be a focal point of this year's International Downtown Association conference, taking place Oct. 20-22 in Tampa.
A TECO Line Streetcar is reflected in a building, left, in the Water Street Tampa area on May 19. The $3.5 billion Water Street development will be a focal point of this year's International Downtown Association conference, taking place Oct. 20-22 in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Oct. 13

Thanks to a Super Bowl and a trio of championship boat parades, the downtown Tampa skyline has, in the past year or so, scored as much global airtime as ever.

“We have been on the world stage, and people have seen what we’ve been doing,” said Lynda Remund, president and CEO of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. “I think it’s been to our benefit.”

Those in the urban development community, however, have been watching downtown Tampa even longer.

The city’s waterfront parks, Riverwalk and burgeoning Water Street Tampa district have drawn such attention that two years ago — well before the Bucs and Lightning started winning titles — the International Downtown Association announced that Tampa would host its next annual conference, a meeting of urban leaders from downtowns around the world.

After going virtual last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, that conference finally arrives in Tampa on Oct. 20, giving around 600 attendees firsthand looks at how Tampa’s downtown has evolved — not just since 2019, but even since last year’s postponed gathering.

It isn’t the first large convention that’s come to Tampa since the pandemic. But it could be one with significant long-term impact, both here and afar.

“II think it is going to be one of the most profound leadership gatherings for our industry in decades,” said David Downey, president and CEO of the International Downtown Association. “For the first time in almost two years, we’ll be able to get CEOs from around the country connecting with one another outside of their daily lives to really contemplate the future of downtowns, town centers, Main Streets and urban districts moving forward. There’s a lot riding on the success of this conference.”

Related: Coronavirus pandemic clouds future for Tampa Bay's downtowns

The pandemic has led to questions about whether downtown cores can continue to exist as they have in a new era of Slack calls and Zoom meetings. The “significant shifts” that Downey said downtowns are facing will be front and center in Tampa, with the host city serving in some ways as a model for discussion.

“Like good urbanists, we like to get out and kind of kick the buildings, kick the tires a little bit, and see what’s happening,” Downey said. “Anytime this community of professionals comes together, they will openly share their reactions, their ideas, their feedback to the host city, to the host partnership staff, so they get an understanding of it through the lens of someone who lives and breathes this same work every day in cities all across North America.”

Often, they’ll weigh in on what the host city could be doing better. This year, Remund is counting on it.

“One of the tours that we’re going to be giving is along Franklin Street and Marion Street in downtown Tampa,” she said. “We’re going to be asking for feedback from these experts who are coming to visit us and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think we need to be doing?’ It’s a good chance for us to get some good, candid feedback.”

Related: As inventory grows, Tampa Bay's office space market sees upswing

One focal point of the convention will be Water Street Tampa, the $3.5 billion development by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment. Water Street developers Strategic Property Partners have been presenting at International Downtown Association events for years, so many members are already familiar with the project’s scope and first-of-their-kind wellness initiatives. Vinik is among this year’s keynote speakers.

Related: Bill Gates's divorce pulls his Water Street Tampa investment into spotlight

In another sign of Tampa’s transformation, the pandemic delay meant some projects that wouldn’t have been finished last October are now open for business, including the Tampa Marriott Water Street, an office tower, two residential towers and a Publix GreenWise Market.

“So many other cities stopped everything that they were doing, and we didn’t, so things were progressing this whole time,” Remund said. “People have had a window into what’s happening in downtown for over a year now.”

The conference includes breakout sessions on other areas, including Ybor City and downtown St. Petersburg, as well as bike, park and public art tours. While they’re out and about, attendees may even see an aspect of downtown Tampa life that’s been absent for the entirety of the pandemic: Port Tampa Bay will see its first cruise ship in 19 months this weekend, with another, Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas, departing on Oct. 21 — smack-dab in the middle of the conference.

For the downtown leaders coming into the city, the more activity, the better.

“They want to experience what will be, for many, the first time they’ve seen Tampa,” Downey said. “What it would have been last year, they’ll have no idea. But they’re certainly looking forward to seeing it in its current state.”

International Downtown Association

Following a kickoff event Oct. 19, the International Downtown Association’s annual conference takes place next Wednesday through Friday at the Hilton Tampa Downtown. For a schedule of events, see downtown.org.