Who would object to honoring only the second Hillsborough County service member to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor? Smith paid the ultimate sacrifice while manning a .50-caliber machine gun under murderous enemy fire at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on April 4, 2003. He left a widow and two children.
And what better place for a memorial than Tampa’s marquee thoroughfare, a place where the flag-waving Bayshore Patriots gather every Friday to honor the military’s service. Plus, Smith grew up in the nearby South Tampa neighborhood of Palma Ceia.
Sharpe’s fellow county commissioners agreed, voting unanimously Sept. 18 to develop a county policy that would allow a dedication to Smith on Bayshore Boulevard. Though Bayshore is officially a county road, commissioners insisted Tampa city officials be involved in the planning.
Exactly three months later, however, the commission mysteriously voted to instead dedicate a section of U.S. 301 to the Medal of Honor recipient, far east of the city Smith called home. There was no discussion other than Sharpe’s introduction of the resolution.
The story of what happened to Smith’s Bayshore memorial is a story of how the best of intentions, even when they carry unanimous support, can get sidetracked by bureaucracy and a simple failure to communicate.
The story behind the efforts to honor Smith starts with 970 WFLA-AM radio personality Jack Harris. With more than 40 years on the air, Harris and his AM Tampa Bay co-host Tedd Webb have a drawn a loyal audience for their no-holds-barred, mostly conservative commentary over the early morning airwaves.
Years ago — he’s not sure when — Harris started agitating to rename a street in Tampa for Smith, whom Harris calls a “super hero.”
“He knew he was going to die, but he went up there to save two different groups of guys,” Harris said, “not to mention he accelerated the capture of Baghdad airport, which saved countless lives because they didn’t have to fight their way in there.”
Harris thought a good local street to rename for Smith would be Boulevard, which runs off and on from Bayshore Boulevard north to Lake Magdalene Boulevard in north Tampa. Harris figured there wouldn’t be much emotional attachment to a street called Boulevard.
But it turns out there’s a lot more to renaming a street than changing street signs.
The request must come from the mayor or the City Council. Then a major investigation, including a cost analysis, is conducted and all the business owners and residents with addresses on the street must be notified. Bus routes have to reflect the new name and the emergency 911 system has to make changes.
Businesses are especially resistant street name changes because it requires rewriting their advertisements, menus, phone listings, websites, business cards and other branding identifiers. Those same business owners, along with homeowners, get to sound off about a proposed street name change at a public hearing before the city council.
“It’s not just going out there with a rachet set and throwing up a new street sign,” said Tom Snelling, Tampa’s director for Planning and Development.
When Harris learned how hard it was to change a city street name, he decided to invite Sharpe, a Navy veteran, on the radio show to talk about it. Sharpe had heard Harris talking on the air about the need to honor Smith and readily agreed to come on the show.
“I didn’t imagine the first (Iraq War) Medal of Honor winner from here, that we’d have a problem doing that,” Sharpe said. “Let’s get it done.”
That was more than two years ago. Sharpe assigned his legislative aide, Eric Larson, to work on the issue.
Larson quickly learned about the obstacles to renaming a city street and changed gears. He contacted Smith’s mother, Janice Pvirre, who said renaming a street would be nice. She suggested a road close to Tampa Bay Technical School, which Smith attended.
“I didn’t think they’d do anything on Bayshore; that’s just a Tampa historic road,” said Pvirre, who now lives in Pinellas County. “When they asked my opinion, I thought it would be very nice if they named the road in front of the school.”
Larson contacted the school board and asked about renaming a service road next to Tampa Bay Tech for Smith. The road is listed as an entrance to the school with no homes.
But school system officials said changing the name would require changing the school’s letterhead. They asked Larson to hold off until the next school year. Plus, the high school had already named its ROTC building after Smith.
Once again, Larson changed course and looked into putting memorial markers on Bayshore Boulevard, leaving the street name unchanged. The county commission approved the idea Sept. 18, with the proviso that the county work with the city on the dedication.
Here, the details get murky.
Larson remembers being told that meetings had been scheduled between city and county officials to discuss dedicating Bayshore Boulevard to Smith’s memory. Ali Glisson, communications director for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, said there was a meeting scheduled between the city and county but the county canceled and never rescheduled.
“This idea that we had meetings with the city, which I thought happened, apparently never happened,” Larson said.
Larson also recalls being told by county staff members that the city had a rule: Any sign erected on Bayshore Boulevard had to come down after two or three years. Glisson and Snelling said there is no such rule.
Sometime after the Sept. 18 county commission meeting, county staff members broached the idea of putting the memorial on U.S. 301. They argued that the road is heavily traveled and passes by the county’s Veterans Memorial Park and Museum. It was also in the general vicinity of Tampa Bay Tech, about two miles away.
The U.S. 301 dedication could be handled with a local legislative bill and a county commission resolution. The Florida Department of Transportation would order the signs and put them up.
“We just made the decision to shift it out there,” Larson said. “It would be highly visible, a win-win.”
Larson remembers telling Sharpe there were too many hoops to jump through for the Bayshore memorial and recommended putting it on U.S. 301 because of Memorial Park. Sharpe agreed and the commission voted unanimously in favor on Dec. 18.
Except there weren’t really any hoops.
For one thing, the county is responsible for capital improvements on Bayshore Boulevard, said Glisson, the mayor’s spokeswoman. Those improvements could include Paul R. Smith memorial markers.
Snelling, the planning director, said it would make sense for the county to coordinate the dedication with the city just to be neighborly.
“I would think if the county wanted to do something like that, they would talk to Mayor Buckhorn and get his support, or the council person who represents that area, just so everybody plays nice in the sandbox together,” Snelling said.
Buckhorn has a strong record of supporting veterans’ issues, Snelling added, and would probably champion a Paul R. Smith memorial dedication in the city.
As for Sharpe, he said he’s not giving up on the issue.
“There are no obstacles greater than what that young man faced,” Sharpe said. “My commitment is just getting it done.”