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Tampa mayors recall challenges in creating the Riverwalk

Artists rendering from the City of Tampa of the Tampa Riverwalk final portion from near the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge at MacDill Park around the Tampa Convention Center
Artists rendering from the City of Tampa of the Tampa Riverwalk final portion from near the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge at MacDill Park around the Tampa Convention Center
Published Jun. 4, 2013

TAMPA — It was the federal highways guy from Washington, D.C., who compared the next part of the Riverwalk with the golden spike linking the transcontinental railroad.

But on Tuesday it was Tampa's six living mayors who remembered the work it took to get the project this far.

"I tried to do it 40 years ago," said Bill Poe, Tampa's mayor from 1974 to 1979. "I think I put about 10 planks in, and I had to buy the planks."

With construction about to start on a key section of the Riverwalk, Mayor Bob Buckhorn gathered his five predecessors to celebrate the city's progress so far. Once the new segment is complete in late 2014, the Riverwalk will offer an uninterrupted 1.8-mile trail for walking, jogging and cycling.

"This is not my accomplishment," Buckhorn said during a ceremony at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. "This is our accomplishment."

For Poe, 81, and former Mayor Dick Greco, 79, the downtown bank of the Hillsborough River today looks nothing like the gritty working waterfront of their youth.

Then, the area now home to Curtis Hixon park, the Tampa Museum of Art and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts was industrial, with a cigar factory and a lot of railroad tracks.

"It was full of activity, however it was dirty and dusty," Poe said.

"This was a meat-packing plant with rats running across the street — big rats," Greco said, gesturing across the lawn at Curtis Hixon park.

"That's a thing people don't realize," said Greco, mayor from 1967 to 1974 and again from 1995 to 2003. Going all the way around to the Channel District, "all of this was a working port, so piece by piece it had to be acquired."

Along with assembling the land — an expensive and complicated process — past mayors also had to change the public's attitude about the river itself.

"Everybody had turned their back on the river," said Sandy Freedman, mayor from 1986 to 1995. "Everything was built facing away from the river and flush to the river. There wasn't any space for people."

In 1988, Freedman organized the first annual cleanup of the river, which removed as much as 20 tons of trash in a single day.

"That's what people used the river for," she said. One day, she donned a big floppy straw hat for a boat ride with reporters and Buckhorn, who was then her special assistant.

What Buckhorn remembered from that day — other than the hat — was "the unfulfilled potential" of the river.

"Because it was a working waterfront," he said, the city "had not focused on the development of the waterfront."

The mayors also had to ignore the naysayers.

"There was a good deal of criticism," though not as much anymore, said Pam Iorio, mayor from 2003 to 2011. "In the beginning, people said, 'Why are you spending money on this? It's not worthwhile.' "

But each mayor said it will be worth the trouble.

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"When you think about other cities you visit ... what's one of the things that you often come away with if you really love the city? 'I could walk it.' " Iorio said.

Downtown Tampa's streets offer little of that appeal now, but the Riverwalk will, she said.

"It opens up the river to the people."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.