When the ribbon is cut on the $38 million expansion of the Tampa Convention Center downtown in a few weeks, it will mean different things to different people.
For city boosters and visitors of the region’s primary convention facility, it’s 18 new upper-story meeting rooms that can be converted into expansive space for galas — with sweeping new floor-to-ceiling views that fully show off Tampa’s waterfront.
For lovers of the Riverwalk, that popular 2.6-mile ribbon of sidewalk that ferries more than 100,000 runners, walkers and partiers monthly, it means that irksome detour away from the water into city traffic to accommodate construction will be over.
Both those developments — the oft-expressed frustration of rerouted riverwalkers and the convention center fully optimizing its views — are testament to a once gritty industrial port city that only in recent years started maximizing its waterfront for more aesthetic purposes.
“We’re just now realizing the asset that the water is,” said Adam Harden, one of the partners who owns and operates the busy Armature Works food and fun hall at the north end of the Riverwalk.
Behind the convention center on the south edge of downtown, a stretch of Riverwalk has been blocked off by construction gates for a year and a half. Keeping it closed for safety during construction has been “tough for everybody,” said Nader Sinno, the project manager who works for Skanska USA Building Inc. “They love that area.”
“That’s kind of the ongoing question we get: When is it going to be reopened?” said Kirstin Albert, communications coordinator for the convention center.
Answer: by the end of this month, according to Albert.
Opened in 1990, the sprawling 600,000-square-foot beige convention center has first-floor windows on the water and a shady outdoor area along Garrison Channel. But it also had a windowless precast wall for its upper floors with no view of the waterside that’s become a huge draw for Tampa in recent years.
“I think they just didn’t really think about the water being out there,” Sinno said.
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The convention center, owned and operated by the city of Tampa, last year hosted 306,879 people for multiple events, including the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic, the Tampa Bay Comic Convention and the Tampa Bay Auto Show. It pulled in nearly $9.6 million in revenue, according to Albert. The facility was recently named a 2023 finalist in the Stella Awards best convention center in the southeast.
Work to add 23,500 square feet to the top floors — the third and fourth — involved bringing in steel by barge and a crane working from the water. The project was paid for with a combination of city and county money.
During construction, Riverwalk fans no longer had an unbroken path between the Sparkman Wharf food and entertainment area and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Instead, pedestrians, runners, dog walkers and people strolling babies were routed up to a sidewalk along busy Channelside Drive, where it ferries car traffic into downtown.
As for convention attendees, they will now have a view across the water to Davis Islands and Tampa General Hospital, Harbour Island, the high rises of Bayshore Boulevard and the busy boat traffic of pirate taxis and assorted watercraft on the channel. The two floors of new meeting rooms each also have an outdoor terrace.
On a recent tour of the construction, Sinno told visitors, “Wait till you see it.”
The new floors shade the Riverwalk, which got upgraded railings and new ramps as part of the renovation. The Tampa Convention Center sign on the building facing the water will be programmable to light up in different colors.
The project marks another small moment in Tampa’s recent metamorphosis. Its current incarnation includes the Water Street development of tony high-rises and restaurants just east of the convention center.
And some think the waterfront has been key: “I think that the renaissance of downtown has been around the Riverwalk,” Harden said.
Last year, just before a remnant of downtown’s smokestack past, the old Ardent Mills flour mill, was about to make way for development, Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell told the Tampa Bay Times, “It’s not that long ago that the waterfront was not pretty, but it made money.”
Now, tourists sip cocktails at outdoor bars and snap pictures with boats as a backdrop.