Today's Gasparilla parade is a wonderful chance for visitors to check out downtown Tampa's dynamic new waterfront. The new parks and museums that have opened in recent years have brought vitality to downtown seven days a week. And there are bigger plans for attracting more people to the Riverwalk, which snakes along the Hillsborough River through the city center. Even in this down economy, the city has added to its character and enriched the quality of local life.
The opening of newly redesigned Curtis Hixon Park amounted to a coming out party for today's downtown, which boasts new parks, fine arts and children's museums and a history center. From the banks of the river, visitors can enjoy acres of new green space, a waterfront pedestrian trail and the sights of a city on the move, from the new condominiums downtown to the expansion of the University of Tampa.
In the last month alone, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has announced a new, permanent lighting exhibit showcasing the downtown bridges. He chose a firm to redevelop the 107-year-old federal courthouse, which has been shuttered for years, into a luxury hotel. He started work on a new section of the Riverwalk. And he selected a group headed by the Columbia Restaurant, a Tampa institution, to remake the historic Water Works Park into an open-air restaurant on the downtown riverfront.
Buckhorn needs to negotiate leases for the courthouse and Water Works Park that ensure full public access to these local landmarks. But he has a strong framework for both deals, and the projects could jump-start new private investment in the surrounding areas of northern downtown.
The lesson is that cities must continually improve themselves, even in tough economic climates. Buckhorn's predecessor, Pam Iorio, got the ball rolling with her sustained commitment to the Riverwalk and her insistence on making Curtis Hixon a central meeting place. Buckhorn is building on that vision by further connecting the central business district with neighborhoods and public space. That builds energy downtown and bolsters the local economy. Today's parade is a good time to soak in these changes and to envision what else might be possible.