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Future of Downtown Tampa

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A Change Of Course

By ANDY REID [email protected]

Published: Mar 12, 2005

TAMPA - Instead of trying to sell a dose of downtown culture, the city might invite visitors to spread a blanket by the river.

City officials for years promised to create a ``cultural arts district'' downtown, including a new art museum, a riverwalk and an improved waterfront park near Ashley Drive.

Mayor Pam Iorio, however, never liked the name created under the watch of her predecessor, Dick Greco, and wants to consider a more inviting downtown identity.

She also questions proceeding with what has grown into a $76 million art museum project.

After taking office in April 2003, Iorio made the riverwalk the centerpiece of her downtown efforts. Now, with the art museum deal facing a critical March 24 deadline, Iorio wants to drop art and culture from that downtown area's name and consider calling it the ``river district.''

``I am not sure it sounds all that inviting,'' Iorio said about the old name. `` `Cultural' means something different to everyone. ... Most people understand a riverwalk.''

Arts backers and downtown business owners say they are less concerned about the name the city picks than they are with ensuring the museum and other attractions get done.

``That is just kind of a PR marketing tool,'' said Cornelia Corbett, chairwoman of the museum's board of trustees. ``Until we have a world-class museum ... people don't really understand what culture really brings to the downtown.''

The museum remains the key element for downtown development efforts, whatever name the city picks for the area, said Emily Kass, director of the Tampa Museum of Art.

``Everyone is aware of how limiting a term like `cultural arts district' is,'' Kass said. ``It sounds pretty dull.''

Scale Back Museum Plan?

Iorio, who campaigned on turning Tampa into a ``city of the arts,'' said a name change does not mean she wants to de-emphasize the importance of the arts to Tampa's future.

Iorio said ``river district'' better describes the downtown destination, including the riverwalk and riverfront park.

A new art museum remains a priority but might have to be scaled back to fit what the city can afford, Iorio said.

``One way or another, we will have an art museum,'' Iorio said. ``It may not have the same footprint, but it will be in the same area.''

In 1998, Greco and city leaders unveiled plans for a cultural arts district that included a new art museum, a redesigned Curtis Hixon Park and a neighboring home for the Tampa Bay History Center.

Under Iorio, the history center site was moved to a waterfront park behind St. Pete Times Forum. City land once pegged for condominiums beside the William F. Poe parking garage instead would become home to a children's museum.

Iorio moved forward with the effort to redesign the park beside the art museum.

She made finishing a long- promised riverwalk - to stretch from Tampa Heights through downtown to the Channel District - one of her top priorities.

``River district'' tops Iorio's list for a new name, but she said she is open to suggestions.

``The thing that ties it all together is the river,'' Iorio said. ``We are trying to open the river up to people.''

Like the name of the cultural arts district, the future of the art museum deal remains in doubt.

Iorio gave art museum fundraisers until March 24 to finalize a loan to cover their share of construction costs. Iorio also wants financial guarantees that the museum can cover its share of yearly operating costs.

The city committed to provide $29.8 million for construction of a building beside the old one, between Ashley Drive and the Hillsborough River. The museum must raise $46.5 million.

The city also committed to providing $2 million a year for operating expenses. Consultants project it will cost more than $6 million a year to run the new museum.

If art museum backers cannot finalize their financing by March 24, Iorio said she would stop a proposal for city land and money scheduled to go before the Tampa City Council a week later.

The city then would start working on plans for a smaller art museum, Iorio said.

With a museum vote nearing, city council members on Thursday called for more details about the proposal.

Councilwoman Rose Ferlita filed a public records request with Iorio's office for more information, citing state law that requires access to documents.

Ferlita said she did it to ensure she gets answers from Iorio early enough to prepare for the vote.

Councilman John Dingfelder told Ferlita at Thursday's council meeting that her action was ``unusual'' and ``confrontational.''

``You operate the way you want to, and I will operate the way I want to,'' Ferlita told Dingfelder.

The two could face each other in the 2007 city election.

Museum `Has Become A Symbol'

While city officials bicker about museum documents and debate names for the targeted area, downtown business owners wait for help to attract customers.

Ellen Brown, owner of the Old Tampa Book Co. on Tampa Street, worries that Iorio will not push to build the art museum.

``The museum is more than an art museum. It has become a symbol of whether or not this downtown is going to happen,'' Brown said. ``We needed leadership that was committed to making the museum happen.''

Maria Castro, owner of the Spain Restaurant on Tampa Street, hears city officials talk about wanting to attract people to live downtown. But she said her family has waited a year to get the OK for six lofts planned in their building.

Castro prefers ``cultural arts district,'' but at this point she does not care what city officials pick.

``They talk too much,'' she said. ``They don't help.''

Reporter Andy Reid can be reached at (813) 259-8409.

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