Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s eyes lit up like a little kid’s the other day when he gave us a tour of Water Works Park, which is under construction along the Hillsborough River just north of downtown.
We imagine residents will have a similar reaction when they see how this long-neglected stretch of the riverfront is being transformed into a fun gathering spot for people of all ages.
Indeed, the projects on the bend in the river are further illustration of Tampa’s maturation into a dynamic municipality that should further spur investment, development and jobs downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods.
“This is going to anchor the north end of the waterfront,” Buckhorn says of the park and the adjacent Ulele Restaurant. “I think you are going to see this become a destination and lead to more development.”
Renovations already are underway at the nearby Tampa Armature Building as part of the Heights Project. Developers envision commercial, retail and residential complexes on the surrounding 37 acres. That will take some time.
But there won’t be much of a wait for Water Works Park, scheduled to open by the end of summer. It is going to be a blast for families. Kids can frolic in a playground that includes climbing ropes and a splash pad where a big yellow bucket dumps 65 gallons of water.
The $6 million project is designed for adults as well. There is a turf dog park, a festival lawn, event pavilion and boat docks along the shady riverfront.
The RiverWalk will run 2.1 miles from the History Museum to the park, so it likely will be a popular starting point for joggers and pedestrians.
“We’re connecting the dots,” the mayor says of the RiverWalk, which links parks, museums and “activity centers” all along the waterfront.
Adding considerably to Water Works Park’s appeal is the Gonzmart family’s Ulele Restaurant, which is being completed in the city’s old water works building.
The park’s restrooms and pump house’s red-brick exteriors were intended to match the water works’ appearance.
The restaurant is a passion for Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, who notes the water works building played a significant role in his family’s history.
“This was the source of water for the Columbia Restaurant in 1905,” he says. “Water is the source of life, of hope. We want this restaurant to not just serve food, but bring hope to others.”
He is working with local schools with hospitality programs — such as nearby Brewster Technical School, which has a special program for autistic students — to offer training and jobs for young people in need of employment.
Gonzmart and his team are attending historic details closely in renovating the building, which also will include a craft beer factory. Whenever possible they use local products and artisans. Similarly, the restaurant’s menu will focus on homegrown food.
The city is leasing the Gonzmarts the building for $1 a year, but that looks to be a smart deal for the city, given that the family has invested more than $5 million in the venture and will pay property taxes on the building. Buckhorn believes it is destined to become Tampa’s version of New York’s fabled Tavern on the Green.
The restaurant, scheduled to open next month, will offer customers a panoramic view of the river. The other day a dolphin made a series of spectacular leaps nearby, as if putting on an exhibit for the mayor.
Restaurant visitors also will be able to dine outside along Ulele Spring, which runs between the restaurant and the park.
Thanks in part to volunteers, the once-clogged and littered little spring has been cleaned and its shoreline replanted with native vegetation. Now clear water flows to the river, and workers have seen manatees venturing into the waterway.
The revival of the spring, named after a Native American princess who reputedly saved a Spanish prisoner from execution, is emblematic of the revival of Tampa’s waterfront.
For generations the city turned its back on the water, walling it off with warehouses and other unsightly structures. But thanks to public commitment and private investment, our urban waterfront is growing ever more alive with activities and enterprises.
Buckhorn describes the formula for the renaissance: “The seed investment the city makes attracts private capital, and then everyone benefits.”