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  1. Opinion

Artsy condo near Tampa Riverwalk, water views, move-in ready. Sleeps 4,000. Tenants must fly at night and eat mosquitoes.

These fancy digs with room for 4,000 awaits Tampa's Riiverwalk bats at Julian B. Lane Park. [Photo courtesy of City of Tampa]
Published Aug. 19

Tampa has its share of ugly and gritty, but the downtown Riverwalk is something right out of a glossy brochure.

On this curving waterside stretch of pavement, runners run, people stroll and funsters step off water taxis or sip cocktails with the city skyline as their backdrop.

Oh, and did I mention all the bats? Though they might not make the brochure. Which would be a shame.

This is a tale of man, nature and where we live. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has estimated there are thousands of bats living their bat lives under the Laurel Street Bridge (recently renamed the Fortune Taylor Bridge) between Waterworks Park and the performing arts center. Tampa is home to free-tailed bats and also evening bats.

There, tucked into the cozy concrete crevices of the underpinnings of the bridge, they rest, groom and communicate with each other — I've been told bats even babysit each other's offspring. They come out at dusk to eat. Alert Riverwalkers can spot bats swooping, swarming and careening over the water under that bridge, oblivious to anyone who might be freaked out by them. Because while some are charmed, others, not so much.

Bat fans, and they are legion, will tell you there's little to fear. "They don't bother anyone — they have this wonderful live-and-let-live attitude: You stay away from me, I'll stay away from you," says Francine Prager, founder of Tampa Bay Bats, a bat rehab, release and education organization.

"They don't fly into your hair," she says. "I get that quite often."

But if you can't bring yourself to think of bats as cute, maybe you can at least see them as really useful. Bats feast on insects, lots of insects, including those evil mosquitoes. In fact, bats are estimated to save American farmers billions every year in pest control.

Also, they were here first.

So the city had an idea: Build a proper bat box away from the pedestrian Riverwalk and the hustle and bustle of downtown in a safe spot just across the water in the newly refurbished Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

A bat condo, as it were. Roomy enough for up to 4,000.

Build it up high to thwart predators. And what the heck, make it pretty, with artist Lynn Manos Page doing it in cool blue with brown bats aswarm on the outside.

If you build it, will bats come?

On my regular Riverwalk forays these days, I see bats going about their bat business in the dark under the bridge. I also experience the unmistakable sharp smell from their scent glands that permeates the pedestrian underpass (and, by the way, drives my dog mad with joy, straining at the leash to get a snootful.)

But since the bat box went up across the river last summer, no signs of bat life there.

"They like that bridge," says Robin Nigh, who handles public art for the city and has learned an awful lot about bats.

(By the way, the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas is home to a massive urban bat colony that is a major tourist attraction. Just saying.)

Nigh says it can take up to three years for bats to discover a bat house. "It was probably unrealistic to think they'd move in last year," she says. But winter is coming, when it might make sense in the bat cycle for a move.

"Waterfront property," she says. "Move-in ready."

For now, exercisers, outdoor-types and partiers on the Riverwalk can stroll under the pretty lights, catching sight of a heron or maybe a manatee surfacing in the river.

And if they are very lucky, the swoop of a Riverwalk bat.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com .

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