Transforming Tampa Bay: Bright lights, big city


The Tampa Downtown Partnership honors a decade of urban excellence.

By: Linda Saul-Sena

Time passes, things change and we rush on. There’s value in freeze-framing a moment in the evolution of our community and reflecting on the accomplishments to date.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership (TDP) took a beat Nov. 30 atop the Beck Group building in Tampa Heights, hosting the 10th Annual Urban Excellence Awards. As TDP CEO Christine Burdick reflected, “This display of all the things that have come together to make downtown grow is a diverse effort. These awards get better every year.”

Collectively, the 11 award winners make you smile. The People’s Choice Award – the “Before I Die” public art mural – entices passersby to record their hopes and dreams on a 40″ x 8″ placard. This interactive project was sponsored by Leadership Tampa Bay’s Class of 2016 and is one of 1,000 “Before I Die” murals around the globe inspired by New Orleans artist Connie Chang. Currently located on the Riverwalk just north of the Brorein Bridge, this artwork is washed clean by rain, only to be re-chalked by the public.

Maryann Ferenc, beloved co-proprietor of Mise en Place, was named Downtown Person of the Year for her myriad contributions to downtown and Tampa Bay. When she and Chef Marty Blitz moved their restaurant to Grand Central Place off Kennedy Boulevard in 1992, that portion of downtown was pretty seedy. They survived and transcended, bringing modern American cuisine to a stretch of Kennedy that had previously been known as the “Plasma Path” because it linked the blood donor center and the temp jobs office.

In typical Maryanne style, she used the occasion of the Urban Excellence Awards to credit all the players, especially the TDP. “I am one of many boosters of downtown, and it’s finally the destination we’ve been working toward.”

Over 5,000 curious folks attended this year’s Tampa Bay Veg Fest, a day-long vegan food festival sponsored by the grassroots, non-profit Florida Voices for Animals. The day was a fresh success and attracted the Juror’s Choice Award.

Proving yet again that with TLC and spackle buildings can be wonderfully reborn, the Historic Rialto Theatre Renovation won the Historic Preservation Award. Hope Donnelly and George Carter of 8-Count Productions purchased the theater in 2013, turning it into a mixed-purpose arts and event space that adds to the vibrancy of North Franklin Street.

For each of its 11 years, the Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF) has grown in scale and ambition, winning this year’s Arts and Culture Award. In 2016, over 15,000 film-lovers enjoyed over 120 films from around the world. The 2017 season is even more ambitious, with a record-setting 8-day calendar and 35 events and 150 films planned.

Tampa’s Riverwalk is buzzing with activity, and this year’s Activating Spaces Award winner was the Straz Center’s Arts on the River program. The Straz offered a dynamic mix of performances and activities on its adjacent stretch of Riverwalk, including Daniel Chauche’s “Who We Are: Faces of Tampa” installation. “We want the Straz to be a place for people to enjoy with or without a performance ticket,” said Straz COO Lorrin Shepard.

Continuing the theme of free arts enjoyment, the Tampa Museum of Art won the Downtown Detail Award (though at 23 feet tall, she’s hardly a detail!) for the purchase of the stunning sculpture “Laura with Bun.” This elegant portrait by Jaume Plensa came to town for an exhibition, but remains here through the generous contributions of TMA benefactors.

On a completely different note, The Beach Tampa offered a frolicsome summer entertainment as the Amalie Arena was filled with beach chairs overlooking 1.2 million recyclable white balls in a 15,000-square-foot immersive “ocean.” Snarkitecture (love that name) created this interactive installation, funded by the Vinik Family Foundation and winning the Downtown Experience Award.

As an enthusiastic but risk-averse bicyclist, I’m thrilled at the construction of the Cass Street Cycle Track (originally called the Green Spine). This Public Sector Project Award winner will make east-west rides much safer, thanks to the concrete barrier separating the car and bike riders. Fortunately, this 3/4-mile-long segment is the first part of a safe route between West Tampa and Ybor City.

Perry Harvey Park, an 11-acre, $6.9 million public park, was awarded the Landmark Development Project Award, which is ironic because it sits on what had been the hub of Black Tampa’s social and cultural scene on Central Avenue. After construction of the interstate destroyed the neighborhood, the park created in its place boasted a world-recognized skatepark which was relocated to make way for this latest reuse of the property. Hopefully, this incarnation of the area, hosting public art, odes to Tampa’s black history and shady walkways as well as a new skatepark, will become a successful gathering place.

Kudos to Troy Manthy, owner of Starship Yacht Dining Cruises, for launching the Pirate Water Taxi. Three bright yellow 50-foot boats cruise from the Channel District to Davis Islands to the Riverwalk, offering passengers 14 stops as well as historical narration and concessions and earning its Private Sector Project Award for creativity and guts.

The Awards Jury faced a challenging task of selecting winners from among a rich crop. Hats off to Kevin Plummer, Mickey Jacob, Susie Nelson-Crowley, Keith Greminger and Rich Linquanti, jury chair, for their thoughtful selections. These awards make you want to play hooky and explore downtown.