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O’Neill: Historic Tampa buildings open for business

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 28, 2013 at 02:01 PM

“How many of you walked in here this morning and looked in awe at what this building could be?”

So rhetorically asked Mayor Bob Buckhorn last week at the long vacant S.H. Kress & Co. building downtown. Mayor Bob was there because the historically artsy, erstwhile “five and dime” that closed in 1981 was the cherry-picked venue for his second State of the City presentation. It was a cool, savvy move by Tampa’s salesman-in-chief.

The mayor told the audience that packed the ground floor of the 84-year-old, downtown icon that Tampa’s charge was to “dream big” and “think big” – including being recognized as the “gateway to the Americas.” And such outsized aspirations would necessarily mean upping the ante on all those attributes that first-class, modern cities must have to “grow companies and attract the jobs of the future” as well as to keep and attract the “energetic young people who can reshape an economy through technological innovation.”

And, yes, that plan will require a “first-class transportation system.” And, yes, that “darn sure means rail.” And, yes, he will work with – or around – whomever can help, from Hillsborough County to Tallahassee. And, yes, that was a less-than-subtle jab at Gov. Rick Scott who was a one-man, high-speed derailment two years ago.

Buckhorn was all about Tampa’s future – which includes its past. Its National Registry of Historic Places past.

Thus, the seemingly surprise choice of the Kress Building for his upbeat address that barely acknowledged the blip of a projected $20 million 2014 deficit. It’s still apparent that when Samuel H. Kress built his store, he considered it tantamount to commissioning public art. That’s how a department store gets bedecked with Renaissance Revival terra-cotta facades and warrants high ceilings. It’s still special – and worthy of much more than a VIP party for 2012 convening Republicans.

But back to Buckhorn priorities. The mayor envisions – make that really, really wants – more critical-component in-fill and upgrades for downtown. Of course, he does. His continuous sales-pitch loop to would-be developers is that those intriguingly vacant properties – from the now-restored Floridan and the reincarnating federal courthouse to the potential-oozing Kress Building and adjacent Woolworth’s and J.J. Newberry – are open for business. The pragmatic, history-savoring, redevelopment business.

Downtown Tampa is more than high-rise rentals, new museums, newer restaurants, a nearly-finished Riverwalk, and futuristic scenarios for all those surface parking lots. It’s a Florida city uniquely blessed with key remnants of history that have managed to avoid the wrecking ball of urban “renewal.” Such that, “repurposing” is now part of the downtown mantra.

The past increasingly factors into Tampa’s future, and Mayor Bob wanted that amply on display in his State of the City update. It was.

That recent conference at the Cuban Club in Ybor City – “Rapprochement With Cuba: Good for Tampa, Good for Florida, Good for America” – updated a couple of perceptions in the ongoing and frustrating relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, now a third-term congresswoman, is a recognized player on the issue – and impressed out-of-town speakers as an advocate for Tampa as well as improved bilateral relations.

Col. Larry Wilkerson, a former member of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, waxed frank about the military’s take on relations with Cuba. “The Pentagon has absolutely no inclination in considering Cuba a threat to the U.S.,” he emphasized. “Quite the opposite. It thinks our policy is preposterously stupid. Hell, they’re (Cuba) not sponsoring revolution. They’re sponsoring health care.”

Llanio Gonzalez-Lopez, general counsel at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, was actually here in Tampa for the gathering. It was thought he would have to Skype or phone it in as Cuban diplomatic personnel have been routinely prohibited from traveling beyond the D.C. perimeter. Obviously, travel restrictions have been eased by the U.S. and Gonzalez-Lopez, who had 48 hours for his Tampa sortie, obviously appreciated his first-ever trip to Havana-rooted Tampa. “I feel like I’m in Cuba,” he said with an animated, ironic smile.

More than a half-dozen years after Jeb Bush left Tallahassee, Florida’s “education governor” has left an evolving legacy that is more than FCAT “accountability.”

Quantitatively, Florida has two of the top 10 school districts in the country when it comes to charter-school students. Miami-Dade County, at No. 6, has 35,000 charter students. Broward, at No. 10, has more than 23,000.

Qualitatively, Florida has an ongoing love-hate relationship with charters. They’ve been lavishly praised by some for being a welcome public-school alternative, but publicly criticized by many more on several fronts – ranging from problematic for-profit management-taxpayer scenarios to underperformance to questions of operational oversight.

As for locals, Hillsborough County, with 6,100 charter students, grew 52 percent from the previous school year. This is second in the country in rate of growth.

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