This past Thursday the Tampa Downtown Partnership hosted their 27th Annual Meeting and Luncheon for board members, officers, members, and the general public. This year, the Partnership introduced a twist to the usual program: a panel of mid-career men and women to discuss what Tampa needs to and should become in the next decade. The “Fast Forward” panel that included myself of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Brandon Hicks of Twelfth Street Studio, Brian Seel of The Beck Group, and Ann-Eliza Taylor of the Yates Law Firm was moderated by Shaun Drinkard, the Director of Placemaking with the Partnership. Incoming Chairman, David Smith of Gray Robinson, introduced the panel to offer a different perspective than the more mature and experienced speakers at the usual meetings, and represent the shift he hopes to make in the organization: expansion of membership and more leadership from young professionals.
The Tampa Downtown Partnership serves as an advocate of downtown Tampa, focusing on the physical and economic development, cultural activities and events, and continuing public and private partnerships among stakeholders. The Partnership promotes the downtown community by fostering vibrant and diverse multi-use neighborhoods and plays a key role in creating an urban center where people can learn, live, work, and play. Each panelist is committed to the same objective, and works within different organizations within the community to enhance the vibrancy of Tampa’s downtown and it’s surrounding neighborhoods.
The “Fast Forward” panel discussion revolved around four questions, each providing a different insight into the challenges and triumphs in Tampa’s future. Conversation focused on the hopes and commitments for Downtown Tampa over the next decade, the hurdles encountered and opportunities used to overcome them, and the momentum for future change. From the diverse experiences of the panel, themes emerged from the discussion as the most important for moving Downtown Tampa forward.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!
Arguably the largest priority necessary to make Tampa a first-class city is to be able to attract industry and workforce, and be able to retain it. There is no doubt a host of reasons why Tampa is challenged to compete with cities like Charlotte, Houston, or Raleigh/Durham, but two of the most influential are how the city is perceived and what people can find when they get here.
The Florida reputation will be a hurdle to overcome in attracting industry. Among the most talented young professionals in the country, many silo Florida off into three categories: Miami, Disney and retired people. Unfortunately, Tampa easily can be put in the last category, especially since the Tampa Bay area does host a large number of tourist destinations that draw retirees and snowbirds. Tampa isn’t seen as a place that attracts a large number of young professionals on a national scale, and therefore industries are less likely to move here. They want to establish themselves where young professionals will want to stay indefinitely.
Furthermore, the talent that Tampa is able to attract is easily lost later to more competitive opportunities nationwide. Because of the sometimes-limited industry growth it is hard for employers to promote and develop their employees at the pace expected. When that great opportunity comes up in Charlotte or Atlanta – they take it.
The question becomes – how to we evolve Tampa to be a competitive force for industry and jobs on a national scale?
Pirates, Not Palms
The first is to change the conversation. We need to shift our focus from the Floridian identity of palm trees and sunshine, to what makes Tampa real. Defining a city’s identity on what makes it unique is crucial in its competitiveness. The two things that set apart Tampa from any other American city is its Cuban culture and Gasparilla season.
Ybor City was mentioned numerous times by the panel and was a driving force in attracting at least two of us to live and stay in Tampa. Ybor City is where Tampanians can most easily emotionally connect with the Cuban heritage. The cigar factory architecture, ethnic clubs, cigar shops and bars, and restaurants like The Columbia communicate palpably the cultural heritage that makes Tampa unique.
The Gasparilla festival season that runs for the majority of the winter months exhibits the rich arts character of the city. The art, music, and film festival put Tampa on the map as a culturally relevant city. The fun devotion and commitment to the invasion of pirates during Gasparilla is a refreshing exercise that identifies Tampa as a creative, fun, and interesting place.
Let Clearwater sell the palms – let’s change the conversation to what no other city in the country can offer. We’re already very proud of our Cuban and Gasparilla culture, we just need to communicate and market it more effectively.
Trees and Trains
The second way to make Tampa competitive on the national scale is to build our way into offering the lifestyle that young professionals want and expect out of their home city. The reason why Mayor Buckhorn sets up Charlotte as perhaps our main competitor is because they have been able to attract a lucrative industry and enhance an urban environment based on walkability and transit. Professionals, who might normally choose Manhattan or Chicago to work and live, are now choosing Charlotte because it offers the foundation of urbanity for a more affordable price.
As a native Charlottean, I believe the city did two things that I believe have led to its transformation in a relatively short amount of time. The first is that Charlotte made a commitment to be a green city. It has arguably the best urban design and complete street guidelines in the country. Every time a street is repaved or redeveloped, where appropriate, its lanes are narrowed, bicycle facilities are included, sidewalks are widened, and planting of mature trees creates a street canopy. The result is that most of the streets in the city center are a comfortable, safe, and attractive place where people want to spend time.
Secondly, Charlotte embraced very early that it could not increase the capacity of its roads indefinitely. It committed itself to developing a premium transit system in a part of the country that had very little. At times it wasn’t understood or seen as necessary by local residents. But the light rail system opened to great success – it’s expansion and the introduction of the streetcar and BRT are following close behind. While the transit system is not expansive yet, it is extremely effective in the territory it does serve. The result is a small, but high quality urban center that has attracted many factors that create a livable environment.
What has followed both of these investments in public infrastructure is economic development. Building along the light rail corridor exploded, even through the recession, to transform a historically industrial area to a dense, connected, and lively part of the city. Furthermore, hubs of walkability have popped up in central neighborhoods throughout Charlotte where significant amounts of residents can access local retail and entertainment along redesigned and pedestrian oriented streets. A 24 hour environment that offers a place to live, work, and play is becoming clustered in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Tampa has the perfect opportunity to emulate the city that has been labelled countless times as its competition. Tampa has benefited from some projects of the highest design quality in the past decade that has already had a large influence in developing Tampa’s downtown into a neighborhood. Curtis Hixon Park, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Riverwalk, and the Tampa History Museum are new additions that enhance its existing cultural identity built by the Tampa Theatre and Franklin Street. With the addition of two boutique hotels and a new residential tower, Tampa will have even more destinations downtown.
What Tampa doesn’t do well enough is connect these assets together. The city’s gem is the TECO streetcar line that connects Ybor City, the Channel District, and Downtown. It is failing, with little funding, poor operation hours, and inadequate support by local government. It should be revived and rebranded to be seen as a viable choice in public transportation instead of a tourist attraction, and be expanded to connect multiple urban neighborhoods like Hyde Park, the Heights, and the west bank to the urban core. This is imperative to building the type of city that young professionals expect – economic development will follow.
Additionally, Tampa suffers from roads that are far too wide and lack the facilities and the character required to make a pedestrian feel comfortable or safe. If Tampa could make a commitment to rebuilding the streets just in the very core of the city by taking back right-of-way from the automobile, it would communicate to current and potential residents that the city is committed to becoming a more livable place. What will result will be a more active public realm that attracts the 24-hour lifestyle that so many on panel called for.
A video was shown at the event where eleven community members shared their vision of downtown in ten years from now, including a Rampello School second grader who wants more trees, and trains like at Disney where you can get on and off all the time. Olga is right – ‘Trees and trains’ will create the type of urban culture that is wanted and expected by the following generations. Tying the assets of downtown together with high quality public realm design and infrastructure is crucial to making Tampa competitive on the national scale.
A Grassroots Vision
The “Fast Forward” panel was asked how momentum could be built to see real change in Tampa over the next 10 years. The most notable was that the process must be a grassroots effort. The city has just gone through an extensive masterplaning process that has established a vision that reflects the priorities of Tampa citizens and stakeholders. While many feel like it doesn’t adequately address the need for extensive transit in the city, it does call for many enhancements in public infrastructure, including streetscape redesign. Many Tampanians work through community and non-profit organizations constantly to implement this vision. The entire panel agrees that more could be done to bring them together to be more effective in guiding the biggest changes that need to occur. Tampa certainly needs to capitalize the work of young professionals.
Second, Tampa and those involved in the community need to do a better job of owning our vision and “selling” it to each other. Many residents of the city aren’t aware of the culture, physical, and natural assets that Tampa has to offer. The question was raised – How to we sell the city to others when we can’t sell it to ourselves?
Third, while it’s important to focus on the future, the city and its champions should identity the elements of the city that already exemplify Tampa’s newly defined vision. If we can communicate the past successes, no matter how small, to Tampa’ neigh-sayers, we will be well on our way to changing it’s perception on a national scale.
The Mayor’s Mantra
Also in attendance was the Honorable Mayor Bob Buckhorn. In office for just over two years, he has committed his work to making Tampa the economic engine south of Atlanta. This has meant facilitating milestone projects like the last segment of the Tampa Riverwalk, the renovation of Tampa’s historic federal courthouse as a boutique hotel, the planned construction of a riverfront residential tower, and the completion of the Invision Tampa Downtown Master Plan. In continuation of the themes identified by the panel, the Mayor focused building upon Tampa’s biggest strength: diversity. The mayor’s speech focused on the investment in the built environment, especially through enhancing the city’s relationship to the water and expanding the downtown core to the west bank of the river. He stated this is necessary to create a strong economic climate worthy of attracting the best talent in the country.
The “Fast Forward” panel was an informative process in changing the conversation around Tampa’s Downtown. In addition to their usual program, the Tampa Downtown Partnership will continue to have more community conversations through the hard work and leadership of Tampa young professionals over the coming year. Competitiveness, marketability, livability, and communication are sure to remain as the themes that continue to move Tampa “forward.” Stay tuned…
Erin Chantry, LEED AP, CNU-A is a Senior Urban Designer with Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MS in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment. Erin is the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, has written articles for Next City, New Geography, and served as a journalist for the national organization of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Erin serves on the executive committee of CNU Tampa Bay, the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Brandon Hicks, RA, LEED AP is a licensed architect for the state of Florida and a LEED accredited professional with the U.S. Green Building Council. After tenures with award-winning firms in Gainesville and Tampa, Brandon co-founded the firm Studio Independent with his extremely patient and understanding wife and is currently a Principal in the Channel District-based architecture and design firm, Twelfth Street Studio. Brandon has been fortunate to be integrally affiliated with the headquarters for the South Tampa agency SPARK Brand, the New York City-based video installation ThruLines.
Brian Seel is a Senior Project Engineer with The Beck Group where oversees large commercial constructions projects. A Tampa Bay native, Brian graduated with a degree in political science and real estate from the University of Florida. He earned a Master’s degree in Construction Management from Georgia Tech. He has been actively involved in a number of community groups. He is the Chairman of Emerge Tampa Bay. He also serves as a representative in the Tampa Heights Civic Association and as Secretary of Connect Tampa Bay. He was named an “Up and Corner” by the Tampa Bay Business Journal in 2011 and a Next Generation Leader by 83 Degrees Magazine.
Ann-Eliza Taylor is an attorney with the Yates Law Firm and a co-founder of Philanthropic Young Tampa Bay. Ms. Taylor has been a member of the artist collective Experimental Skeleton since 2002 and is currently a board member of Hampton Arts Management and Tempus Projects. She lives in Ybor City with her husband, visual artist Brian Taylor.