#83DegreesNYAS: Finding Meaning In Tampa Bay's Curious Quest To Be Cool

When people ask you what's cool about your city, what springs to mind? Is it a historic building you pass on your daily commute to work? An annual festival that gets bigger every year? Your favorite hole-in-the-wall bar or restaurant?

Turns out in Tampa and the surrounding region, it's all of these and something more intangible -- opportunity.

A crowd of nearly 150 young professionals, business and community leaders, creatives, innovators, entrepreneurs, college students and teachers -- primarily from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties -- fueled a lively conversation during 83 Degrees Media's ninth "Not Your Average Speakers" event on March 27.

"Tampa's Curious Quest To Be Cool,'' held inside the recently renovated and refurbished The Vault at The Franklin Exchange in downtown Tampa, focused on our region's adventures -- and occasional misadventures -- to find its seat at the cool kid's table. We're looking at you, Charlotte.

But as Peter Kageyama, creative cities adviser to St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and author of "For The Love Of Cities," wisely quipped -- there's no need for comparisons. Attempting to replicate the energy and spark of alluring cities like Austin and Portland would be foolish.

"Chasing cool is really un-cool," he says. "When you do that, you're not being authentic."

Nurturing an authentic city culture is the key to unearthing our hipness -- that certain something that will make your friends and relatives say, "I wish I lived in Tampa Bay."

When moderator John Streitmatter, Tampa-based principal of the Leadership Research Institute, asked what was cool about Tampa Bay, panelists and audience members focused on experiences, rather than places, that made an impression.

Evan Johnson, an urban planner with Tindale-Oliver and president of Urban Charrette, highlighted the variety of living experiences and opportunities from rural to suburban to urban, from single-family homes to apartments, from mobile homes to beach-front condos.

For INETICO founder and president Joseph Hodges, it was the cornucopia of culture -- everything from arts and music to ethnic festivals, different spoken languages and a huge array of educational forums representing Tampa Bay's diverse population from all over the globe.

For both Punit Shah, president and COO of The Liberty Group, and Kageyama, it was Tampa's aspirations of growth and unrealized potential that hold so much promise.

"Places that feel done like New York and Chicago are wonderful, but there's a different vibe about them," Kageyama says. "The fact that we're talking about our growth is, at the heart, what makes this an interesting place to be."

Pedestrian Friendly

Attracting consistent foot traffic downtown is vital to establishing a strong sense of place, all agreed. When people see people eating at outdoor cafes, walking their dogs or performing music on street corners, a sense of community -- and safety -- is created.

"People aren't going to come if there isn't a place to be," Johnson says. "Finding those crucial gaps is so important to development."

Those gaps are gradually being filled, panelists agreed, under the leadership of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. During his State of the City address on March 26 Buckhorn cited the completion of downtown Tampa's Riverwalk, the construction of three new high-rises, the opening of the Encore development, the restoration of the Classic Federal Courthouse into a 130-room boutique hotel and the potential for refurbishing Franklin Street's historic Kress building as evidence of progress.

As the saying goes -- if you build it, they will come. But how will they get there? The solution was unanimous: Expand and enhance reliable modes of public transportation to connect Tampa's neighborhoods to downtown.

"You need a standard transit system," Johnson says. "There's three or four places where most people work and you should be able to connect these environments easily."
   
Naturally, transit is brought up any time growth in downtown is discussed. But we're still talking about the growth of our city in a cultural sense. On a regional scale, some cities have grown at a more rapid rate than others, according to Pinellas County planner Lauren Matzke, who was in the audience.

"There are so many different little municipalities when you consider Pinellas and Hillsborough counties," she says. "Some of them have found what's authentic about them, and others are still working on it."

Finding Your Peeps

The panel agreed the creation of a distinct vision for Tampa requires its citizens to stop being bystanders and start getting more involved. While nearly everyone in the audience raised their hand when asked if they volunteer or otherwise give back to the community, all agreed that engaging more friends and family is key so everyone builds their own emotional ties. Among suggestions given: Find an organization that you admire and volunteer. Find your tribe. Search for the meaning of your experience in your city.

"If the transit sucks, but the meaning is big I'm going to make it work," offers Michelle Royal, founder of HDYI: How Do You Innovate?.

That realization may not come over night, but when it does, you'll grow attached to your city in ways you never imagined, she says.

"Tampa is a place that welcomes you if you let it," Johnson says. "The trick is finding a way into the community."

After graduating Eckerd College and living in Tampa for 11 years, Hope Donnelly, owner of 8-Count Productions, didn't have much of an emotional connection to the city, she relates. That changed three years ago when she decided to make a conscious effort to show up at new events, walk the Riverwalk and seek out art and music festivals.

"I really re-learned my own city," she says. "It has a lot of great things to offer and people may not realize what's right around the corner."

Giving Props

The March 27 "Not Your Average Speakers'' event was underwritten by Tucker Hall, a Tampa-based public relations and public affairs firm that provides strategic counsel to senior-level managers in the U.S. and Latin America.

83 Degrees Media also partners and cross-promotes NYAS events with MOSI Tampa, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, PNC Bank, Edit Suites, The Wilson Company, Urban Charrette and CNU Tampa Bay.

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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