NEW TAMPA — Once there was an H.H. Gregg. A Bed Bath and Beyond. A Sweetbay. A Macaroni Grill.
Now, the shuttered businesses along Bruce B. Downs seem to add insult to injury for some New Tampa residents. Just across the Pasco line, Wesley Chapel has boomed with new retail and restaurant openings. They worry New Tampa might be turning into a ghost town.
But a recent survey, conducted by students at the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs, suggests the reality is not so dire. Between 2015 and 2018, 57 businesses closed along Bruce B. Downs south of the Pasco County line. But 94 new businesses opened in the same period, and there was a net gain of about 1600 employees and increased sales volumes in that segment of New Tampa.
“Driving down Bruce B. Downs, it’s kind of hard when you’re seeing these empty shells of stores left,” said Sam Becker, a graduate student in urban and regional planning at USF who spearheaded the survey. “It can kind of change your perception. ... Especially with the proximity (to Wesley Chapel), being right on the outside of it. ‘Why not us?’ is kind of the outlook.”
Becker helped start the study after meeting Jane Castor during her run for mayor and while he was interning with the Tampa Downtown Partnership. Castor thought New Tampa was an area that warranted more attention, and Becker explained what he had been studying in school.
Mark Hafen, a professor in USF’s School of Public Affairs who oversaw the study, said big box stores may be favoring Pasco County due to lower property taxes and proximity to other high volume businesses that are thriving there now. The widening of Bruce B. Downs, the main artery through New Tampa, could also have impacted the businesses, he said.
“They generally have a target profit margin for chains,” Hafen said. “If they don’t meet it, they have to move. Small businesses can be more flexible with profit margin, so it’s better to have a backbone made up of small businesses.”
But when New Tampa residents were presented with the results at a town hall meeting last month, some, mostly from Tampa Palms, were still not pleased.
One quipped his friends used to joke he lived in the woods and would have to pack their own lunches if they wanted to visit him. Now, he said, they live in Wesley Chapel.
Another questioned why an Aldi supermarket was coming in near the theater.
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Jeanne Wills moved to Tampa Palms in 1992, drawn to the family-friendly residential area. But she said she’s tired of feeling passed over for development projects downtown and near the Riverwalk.
“I’ve been here 28 years, and I’m still waiting for some of our money to go to building things for us here,” she said.
But while Mayor Jane Castor and City Council chairman Luis Viera attended the meeting in hopes of assuaging the residents’ concerns, others balked at the residents complaints.
“I say this with love, but you are a dog with no teeth,” said Richard Reidy, a senior legislative aide to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. “You pay some of the highest taxes because you live in one of the most desirable areas. ... As a community, you complain about taxes, but don’t show up on voting day.”
Viera, whose district includes New Tampa, said he did see the area as becoming a more cohesive part of the city.
“New Tampa has great political potential that needs to be better demonstrated,” he said.
Currently, Hillsborough County is funding a cultural center for $8.8 million dollars and other recreational park projects in New Tampa.
“I’ve lived (in Seminole Heights) since I was 21 and now it’s hip. I have nothing to do with it, but bringing events to a community,” Castor said at the town hall meeting. “Things like the Riverwalk took five mayors.”
The study also found the New Tampa area lacked an overall sense of identity.
“Everybody’s minding their own business inside their communities,” said Tampa Palms resident George Korath, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years. “There’s no communication between communities.”
The study suggested creating a sense of identity through possibly putting up a “Welcome to New Tampa” sign or trying to attract the type of small businesses that would create a brand.
Even if someone Googles “New Tampa”, Becker said, images of Wiregrass mall show up.
In other Tampa neighborhoods, Hafen said, the sense of identity tended to precede the brand and commercial development that followed. But with the disconnected series of strip malls dotting Bruce B Downs, New Tampa’s residential neighborhoods have a challenge, he said.
“Community identity I think is going to be difficult in the New Tampa community,” Hafen said. “It is a really fragmented part of the city. ... They want to be a destination too. They want things in place that people will come to.”
But, he said, changing the identity could change the fabric of the neighborhood like the restaurants and bars along Florida and Nebraska avenues changed Seminole Heights.
Not all of that, Becker said, might be welcomed by New Tampa residents.
“They don't necessarily want everything in their backyard, for lack of a better term,” he said.
The next phase of the study will include sending out surveys to more residents about their opinion on the types of businesses they would like to see and their thoughts on New Tampa as a place to live, work and play.
Becker said they also hope to glean more data about sales volume from stores in the Tampa Palms shopping areas that they could not earlier.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the source of funding for a New Tampa cultural center. The funding will come from Hillsborough County.