TAMPA — Friday, a piece of downtown Tampa’s past fell to pave the way for plans for its future.
Curious onlookers watched from a balcony atop a new 23-story residential tower in the chic Water Street Tampa district as Mayor Jane Castor operated heavy construction equipment to tear down part of the old Ardent Mills flour mill — a last remnant of Tampa’s industrial warehouse-and-wharf past.
And, local officials said, a hard-fought and important piece of what’s next for the city.
“If you stood in this spot 50 years ago, you’d be surrounded by warehouses, a lumber yard, and an asphalt factory,” said Lynda Remund, president and CEO of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. “Today, we have amazing cultural attractions, a startup hub/technology incubator, world-class hotels, and one of America’s top 50 medical schools for research. Our future is bright.”
Tearing down just one building of the 3-acre mill that opened in 1938 was the symbolic start to a methodical demolition process expected to last three months. It will make way for the next phase of Water Street’s continuing 56-acre development of upscale residences, offices and hotels between the downtown skyline and the Channel District neighborhood along the city’s port.
Friday, local leaders heralded the razing of the old flour mill as a chance to reconnect streets and neighborhoods that were cut off when the mill was built and make getting around on foot, by bike and car easier and safer.
“This is a decade in the making,” said former mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was on hand for the event. “This is the last missing piece to connect downtown to Ybor City.”
“It only took a couple of mayors to get this done,” said Castor.
In its day, the mill was part of a busy port town that thrived with warehouses, shipyards and banana docks in a part of the city that was created with sand left over from dredging the nearby Ybor Channel.
Originally a corn mill, it was in a neighborhood called the Garrison that housed dockworkers and their families. The mill eventually converted to flour, burned and was rebuilt, and kept going even as downtown rose up around it, making it something of an incongruous sight.
Along the port, the Channel District neighborhood developed. The Riverwalk opened up the waterfront to the public, curving from one end of downtown to the other. Along came a hockey arena and an aquarium. Cranes built tall new buildings downtown. And to the south and the east, the $3.5 billion Water Street Tampa development, led by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, started taking shape.
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As downtown morphed, leaders mulled over the property’s best use. For a time, talk even had the site as a possible location for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
In 2018, Vinik and his partners bought it for $13 million — the property being a logical stepping stone north for Water Street. Next, more residences and commercial space are expected.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen told the crowd gathered under a tent for Friday’s event that the county expects to have 1.6 million people by 2026, and its fastest-growing zip code is 33602 — “right here,” he said.
The flour mill was one of only a few in the state, so it contributed to local Cuban sandwiches, pizza and other foods. In recent years it was shipping out 1.5 million pounds of flour daily across Florida, the southeastern United States and the Caribbean.
But even with its downtown demise, it has hardly been rendered obsolete.
Ardent Mills relocated to a modernized $100 million plant — with seven buildings across 10 acres — at Port Tampa Bay’s Port Redwing in Gibsonton south of the city. The new facility is capable of producing up to 1.75 million pounds of flour per day and storing up to 4.1 million bushels of wheat.
And part of the old mill may live on.
Officials said some of the silos of the flour mill, which are several stories high, may be saved and incorporated into what comes next, provided they are structurally sound.