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Friday, Nov 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns
COLUMN

A gem of the city is repolished

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When you walk into Water Works Park on North Highland Avenue in downtown Tampa, prepare for a battle with yourself over which part you like the best.

It’s hard to beat the view when you look to the west across the Hillsborough River that flows right by the park. That’s the first sight that assaults your senses, and you might be tempted to just stop and stare.

Throw in a couple of scullers working their way along the water, as I saw Tuesday minutes before the official ribbon-cutting of Tampa’s newest downtown jewel, and now you will want to knock off work and spend the day by the riverbank.

The place is perfect for long lunch breaks and post-work unwinds in open green space.

There’s the splash pool for the kids, and it was getting lots of use already. Planners included a dog park, so your mind might drift to early in the evening when folks are taking their pooches for a stroll.

Of course, once Richard Gonzmart’s Ulele restaurant opens Aug. 26 — and that place looks worthy of the million or so words the Trib has devoted to it — that’s another picture of what 6 p.m. could look like on any given Friday.

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But for me, I was stopped cold by the restored Ulele Spring, sending clear, calming, bubbling water to join the river. Standing on a little foot bridge overlooking the water, you’d almost swear you’re along a woodsy trail somewhere.

The spring was a stopped-up, clogged and mosquito-saturated mess for years until the city and Gonzmart joined with water officials in a rare display of public-private gusto with stunning results. For decades, this area was a weedy, abandoned patch of dirt and despair, the kind of place you stay clear of after dark.

Now, just look at it.

Folks, this is your park.

This is what your town can do when, like the scullers on the river, everyone rows in the same direction. It is a magnificent transformation that could quickly become the centerpiece of Tampa’s revitalized riverfront.

“They say old things don’t come around,” Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda said. “Well, they’re wrong. Just look at that spring. Look at this place. This used to be the center of things, and now it is again. It took a lot of people working together, and it took the tenacity of the mayor to get this done. But look at it. This is one of the jewels now in Tampa’s crown.”

I’ll be honest: I drove by the park a few days ago to see what was up, and I couldn’t even get close. Workers were everywhere, streets were blocked, and I was sure there was no way the park could open on time. But it also helps to have a mayor with an attitude when it comes to these things, and so Bob Buckhorn showed the tenacity Miranda referenced to get this done.

“I was down here all weekend,” Buckhorn said. “It looked like we had kicked over an ant hill, there were so many workers running around. But we got it done.”

Those workers were on the job until midnight before the opening, but at 10:24 a.m. the ribbon was cut to officially open the park and, well, who’s up for a leisurely lunch and watching the river flow by?

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Lots of cities have parks, but not every city has a river like the Hillsborough that cuts right through the middle of town. This is how you’re supposed to use river space, not for some garish parking garage. You use it as a place for concerts, picnics, flipping frisbees, weddings, walking the dog, cooling your feet, and reminding yourself that this is a pretty great place to live.

“I think about what this used to be,” Buckhorn told the crowd during the ceremony. “Now I think about what it has become.”

That was good, but I think something he told me before the ribbon was cut was even more telling. It was about an attitude that went dormant here for a while.

“Look at this,” Buckhorn said. “We’ve got our swagger back.”

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