TAMPA — The Tampa City Council wants Mayor Jane Castor's administration to report on the status of human remains found under the site of the $3 billion Water Street project after an activist said Thursday she feared African-American remains might be mistreated.
"There was an African community downtown, in an around the Garrison, and if those bodies, the remains of those individuals, are of the African community, we want to be made aware of it,’’ said Connie Burton, a longtime black activist. “We don’t want no quiet, secret disposal of their bodies in some unknown grave so a $3 billion project can proceed. We would hope that this council would intervene and start asking questions."
The Garrison was the name of the black community that formed around Fort Brooke after it was decommissioned in 1883. It lasted until urban renewals projects in the 1960s demolished the community.
But the lead archaeologist enlisted by developer Strategic Property Partners said no human remains belonging to the Garrison settlement have been located.
The council took Burton’s suggestion. After council member Orlando Gudes said he was concerned about the situation, colleague Joe Citro said city officials should work with Strategic Property to make sure "all processes be exhausted to identify the remains as much as we can."
By a unanimous vote, his colleagues agreed. Council member Bill Carlson was absent for the vote.
Strategic Property is the development firm created by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, the capital fund owned by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, to build Water Street Tampa. Vinik also is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.
In November, archaeologists conducting an inventory of the site discovered grave shafts. Since then, little additional detail has emerged though the Times obtained emails from a project consultant indicating that any remains would be either returned to the Seminole Nation or reinterred in the city's historic Oaklawn Cemetery, located downtown at the intersection of North Morgan and East Harrison Streets.
How many bodies have been found, or their origins, remain a mystery. Former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, briefed last year, said it appeared many of the bodies dated back to the period after the establishment of Fort Brooke on the site in 1824 as an outpost in the decades of warfare against the Seminole Nation.
The lead archaeologist on the project, Eric Prendergrast, emailed the Times to say that the Garrison was developed well after the Estuary Cemetery, which lay to the south. Strategic Partners had prioritized archaeological research in the Garrison neighborhood because of its importance in city history, he said.
“While Garrison-era artifacts have been discovered, there have been no archeological findings relative to cemeteries, or human remains, from the Garrison-era,” Prendergrast said.
State statute says the developer's archaeology team can handle the excavation and interment of the remains but they have to inform the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner and Florida's state archaeologist of their findings. The Times requested such emails from both departments via a public records request on May 29 and have yet to receive any documents.
Reached by phone after the vote, Citro said he just wants the city to make sure everyone knows the "heritage of the bodies." Are they Native American, African-American, Spanish or even a Roughrider felled by malaria? Citro wonders.
"This is history. It's part of the city of Tampa," Citro said. "Let's see if we can get our findings."
Then a clearer picture should emerge of the city's role in identifying and disposing of the remains and how much it might cost, Citro said.
City staff is scheduled to report back at the July 18 council meeting. City Economic Opportunity Administrator Bob McDonaugh has no role in the project except to consider requests for burials of remains in city cemeteries. No such requests have been made, he said Thursday.
A Strategic Property spokesperson has said they plan to deliver a comprehensive report to the city. McDonaugh said it was his understanding that report would be the one delivered to council members July 18.