TAMPA — Joe Chillura Jr., architect and longtime elected official who crafted a half-penny sales tax that built a football stadium and went on to pay for billions in community improvements, died Saturday. He was 84.
He died peacefully in his sleep from natural causes, according to a spokesperson for the family.
Chillura was a true son of Tampa, born in Ybor City, raised in Seminole Heights and a 1958 graduate of Hillsborough High before he went on to the University of Florida to study architecture. His mother worked in a cigar factory, and his father was a partner in a construction firm that built local schools.
Chillura, a Republican, was elected to the Tampa City Council in 1970, served 12 years on the Hillsborough planning commission and eight more as a Hillsborough County commissioner in the 1990s.
He played a pivotal role in crafting the Community Investment Tax in the 1990s — which was controversial because it used public money to pay for Raymond James Stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The tax also funded schools, parks, fire stations, public safety investments, libraries and other community needs.
“It was so important, not just for the stadium,” former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who knew Chillura since childhood, said Tuesday. “The schools were about to go on double sessions.”
In a 2021 Tampa Bay Times interview, Chillura compared the tax to the old Sweet Tomatoes buffet restaurant on Dale Mabry Highway near the stadium, known for its vast array of food choices.
“I said, ‘You know what, that concept could fly for a tax where everybody gets a little bit of something,’” he said, “even if they don’t like the other something.” The tax passed in 1996 with 53% of the vote.
“He stuck his neck out,” said Tampa political consultant Victor DiMaio, a longtime friend. “He took a lot of heat for it at the time.”
Through fiscal year 2022, the tax has generated $2.6 billion. As it reaches its 30-year sunset, the County Commission is considering whether to put its renewal on the November ballot for voters to decide.
“But he never boasted about it, never said, ‘Oh, I did this, I did that,’” Greco said. “A very quiet, very nice person. Not what you see in politics today.”
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Chillura also championed the Neighborhood Bill of Rights, advocated for the Landmarks Ordinance for Historic Preservation and helped establish the Hillsborough County Economic Development Department. In 1972, he helped draft an ordinance to make downtown Tampa greener. The Planning Commission gave him its Person of Vision Award.
Chillura often encouraged others to get involved in community matters and politics. To the end, he remained deeply concerned about Tampa’s shrinking tree canopy.
“Joe had a lot of perseverance. If he made up his mind to get something done, he made it happen,” said his wife Mary Helen Chillura in a news release. “He wanted to make Tampa a better place, and I think he did that.”
Chillura ran for Congress in 1998 but lost to Jim Davis.
The Chillura name endures in Tampa. A busy public park across from the downtown courthouse is named Joe Chillura Courthouse Square, site of gatherings, protests and work lunches. His family is involved in local banking, and his grandson Max Chillura owns five Chill Bros. ice cream shops around town.
Known for his affability, Chillura regularly held court at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop at his same table to the right of the door. Regulars, Republicans and Democrats alike, would quietly read their newspapers over cafe con leche, and then the ribbing would begin, DiMaio said.
Another regular was the late Jack Espinosa, a former comedian and sheriff’s office spokesperson with a slapstick style. Across the table, Chillura was the opposite, his barbs dryer and more subtle.
“I miss some of that give and take,” DiMaio said. “Joe was from the old school.”
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Mary Helen, a teacher at Berkeley Preparatory School; five children: Tina, Joe, Conna, Paul, and Vincent; and grandchildren, Christopher, Avery, Patton, Max, Hadley, Nash, Audriana, Adaline, and Annalise. He is survived by his sister, Mary Diecidue.
A Mass will be held Thursday, Feb. 8, at 2 p.m. at Christ the King Church, 821 S. Dale Mabry Highway, with the family receiving friends from 1-2 p.m. That will be followed by a celebration of life outside Armature Works near Oak & Ola restaurant.
Instead of flowers, the family asked for donations to St. Peter Claver School or Villa Madonna School.
“We’re going to miss him,” Greco said. “But at least he lived a wonderful life.”