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Henderson: A bike path to Tampa’s economic DNA? Maybe

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Published:   |   Updated: May 4, 2013 at 10:51 AM

The big news this week in the nonstop work to remake Tampa was the continuing discussion about what to do about the area around the University of South Florida. It’s a complicated task that will require patience and money — both in plentiful amounts. The city and Hillsborough County really need this to succeed.

But you have to pay attention to the small stuff, too.

Start with Thursday’s announcement that four downtown streets are about to receive, in the words of the news release, “a pedestrian and cyclist friendly makeover with new installations of sidewalks and bike lanes or shared-use pathways.”

OK, bike lanes.

Downtown.

Wow.

It didn’t earn a big headline because, compared with the big doings around USF, bike paths and walkways are small spuds.

But every move Mayor Bob Buckhorn makes downtown is with the endgame in mind of transforming it into a residential, commercial and entertainment center — rather than just a place to work and leave. So it was worth paying attention to this.

“Moving the ball every day,” he said in a text message.

Riverwalk moves the ball.

Food trucks move the ball.

Weekend festivals and shows move the ball.

Infrastructure is the only thing Buckhorn likes to talk about more than all those people he sees moving into those new buildings downtown. Since there isn’t much room to build more traffic lanes on the streets, those folks will need a way to easily commute to their downtown jobs.

The demographic he is trying to attract is younger and more environmentally conscious. Hence: bike and pedestrian lanes.

This latest project is only a couple of months after the announcement of bike lanes along parts of Doyle Carlton Drive, Palm Avenue and Laurel Street. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to notice a few more peddle-pushers downtown these days — not a great number, yet, but bikers are already here.

So what’s this mean in the big picture? It may look and sound cool if Tampa can say it’s bicycle-friendly, but Buckhorn has always maintained that there is more to the plan than just aesthetics. He keeps talking about changing the city’s economic DNA.

Companies looking to expand want young, highly skilled workers, and one thing that helps attract them is a vibrant downtown. You don’t see that much in Florida (although St. Petersburg’s downtown is a notable exception), so little moves like these can make a big difference.

Change that comes in increments like this can blend into the scene almost unnoticed. One day you look up, and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is finished and alive with activity. Then the Riverwalk project we’ve been talking about forever becomes reality.

You see sidewalks that were once abandoned after 5 p.m. now filling with local residents out to enjoy an evening stroll.

It would be interesting to see what sprouts from these seeds in four or five years. Someone dropping in after being away for a while might wonder if they were in the wrong city, at least until they figured out it was all part of the plan.

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