1. Florida Politics

Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe has vision for North Tampa

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Published Nov. 20, 2013

Mark Sharpe is talking crazy.


Remember when Sharpe, a Hillsborough County commissioner, thought we were ready for rail? And maybe willing to back a tax for it? Ha.

Remember how he talked with great enthusiasm about how we could be connected by light rail and a beefed-up bus system? Ha again.

Tea partiers shook their fists. Some Republicans started muttering about how Sharpe wasn't Republican enough. And rail died with a resounding no from the voters.

Now Sharpe's got another idea in his head, this one involving the North Tampa expanse that includes Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida.

So there's this big theme park on one side. And over there, USF, the Moffitt Cancer Center, James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, Florida Hospital Pepin Heart Institute and Byrd Alzheimer's Institute.

That's where Sharpe sees the opportunity for "medical tourism." A "destination zone."

He sees that not especially connected area one day smoothly quilted together into the kind of place people would come for health care and a virtual array of services, connected and cohesive. He sees hospitals, but also entertainment, retail, food, hotels and yes, roller coasters.

You've heard of Downtown Disney. What about Downtown Busch?

Do we want to be the innovators, he asks in that caffeinated Mark Sharpe way, or just support staff for the innovators? Why did Forbes list us rock bottom for commuting? How come we don't make the top 20 as a place friendly for startups?

And why doesn't "Tampa Bay" immediately invoke what-a-neat-town status like Seattle or Austin, Texas?

So he gets called Chicken Little. Mr. The-Sky-Is-Falling.

"People get mad at me — 'Why are you so down on Tampa?' " he says, and okay, so folks can get like that if they think you're calling where they live a sleepy little burg.

But if you listen, it turns out that he's saying just the opposite. He's actually talking about making sure we, too, ride the "economic renaissance" he is sure is coming.

Yes, Sharpe is still a true transit believer in the name of bringing in people and jobs (and maybe even medical tourism), but in a different way than that failed rail push. You need plenty of private partners in the mix, he says now.

"It's not going to be an old-school system where government walks in and basically pays for it through traditional tax," he says, having experienced exactly how voters feel about that particular model.

It has been interesting to watch Sharpe evolve into the kind of politician who would back a domestic partner registry because he thought it would be good for Hillsborough County, even if it didn't necessarily fit his party's to-do list.

Just last week, as his eight years on the commission come to an end in 2014 when he is term-limited out, he at last won the chairmanship — a job he has wanted.

Rumor has him running for Tampa mayor once Bob Buckhorn can't run again, or maybe City Council. Maybe he'll get a job in the private sector that allows him to keep pushing the kind of projects he is absolutely sure we are capable of.

If only we would listen to a guy with crazy ideas — who, as it turns out, is not saying the sky is falling, but that it could just be the limit.