The earliest customers may have been Model Ts, a hot car early last century, right up to today’s Hondas, Subarus and SUVs. In they rolled from the streets of downtown Tampa to the Firestone shop, needing flats fixed and bad brakes made better.
“I’m three generations of customers,” said John Finklea, who started in sales in 1988 and became the longtime manager at the Firestone tucked between the county’s courthouses and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
The marquee sign that can be seen from the highway says “Complete Auto Care Since 1926,” but no more. This week the downtown garage fixed its final flat and closed its doors to make way for future expansion of the courthouse buildings around it.
“They’ve served our court family for many years,” said customer and Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta. “Whenever you had a flat tire, you walked across the street.”
“I will miss them,” he said.
Records indicate that in its early days, the shop had locations in the center of downtown, but moved toward the city’s more industrial edge to its current location.
“Having a service station on a valuable piece of land in the central business district didn’t make sense,” said the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell.
Photos from the Hillsborough County Public Library dated 1929 show a few homes in the background. But records indicate an area of commerce - including wholesale produce, hay storage, a packing house, metal works and a roofing company. Where an expressway overpass now rises over that corner of downtown used to be private horse stables.
“I think we would call it a neighborhood in transition these days,” Kite-Powell said. “Going from residential to industrial.”
Back then the business was on Lafayette Street, long before President John F. Kennedy rode through downtown Tampa waving at locals and riding in the same open convertible he was in only days later when he was assassinated in Dallas. Today that street is Kennedy Boulevard, a busy east-west thoroughfare from downtown to Westshore.
The current building replaced the old one in the 1970s. In recent years, the business survived — and thrived — as downtown grew up around it, adding the nearby Channel District and Water Street neighborhoods.
Customers in need of tires, batteries and brakes included workers from nearby government buildings: judges and lawyers, school board employees and county officials.
“Just regular people,” Finklea said.
“I don’t have any exciting stories. I don’t have any brushes with greatness, or ghosts, or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just been a place of work and helping people with their car needs all these years. Very rewarding.”
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In 2020, Hillsborough County paid nearly $2.7 million for the property “for use of long term courts expansion when needed and subject to funding,” John Muller, county director of facilities management and real estate services, told the Tampa Bay Times via email. “Until then, the county plans to leverage it for additional surface parking.”
Finklea said none of the nine employees will lose their jobs but will instead go to work at other stores.
By Wednesday morning, all of Firestone’s usually-bustling car bays sat empty. A sign posted on the front doors directed its longtime customers to other locations outside the city center.