Placemaking: Not Your Average Speakers, Tampa Bay

The Gasparilla Music Festival. Rock The Park. The Food Truck Fiesta. The Tampa Riverwalk. New museums. Funky restaurants. Fabulous performances and art shows. An extended streetcar line. Wider sidewalks. Additional bicycle lanes.

After years of struggling to find itself, downtown Tampa shimmies and shines in the midst of a popular revival.

"Since the holidays, the downtown area has been really alive," says Vince Arnett, who lives in Grand Central at Kennedy in the Channelside District of downtown Tampa. "There's an energy that gets built and it's infectious."

Audience member Arnett's words set the tone for a lively community conversation taking place at 83 Degrees Media's latest "Not Your Average Speakers'' event March 13 at Stageworks Theatre.

In February, Arnett and his wife Jane relocated from their Seminole Heights neighborhood to Channelside after two years of searching for a new place to call home.

They wanted to live in close proximity to arts, restaurants and parks -- while limiting use of a car to get around town. Grand Central fit their needs.

A few years ago, the notion that downtown Tampa could fill such a desire was only a dream. Now? Simply look at sales in downtown residential properties, the rebirth of commercial properties and the lineup of events in recent as well as coming weeks.

Last Saturday, the music of festival mainstays Ra Ra Riot and Deer Tick, along with a lineup of nearly 20 national and local artists filled Curtis Hixon Park for the inaugural Gasparilla Music Festival. The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts showed off its stunning new space at Rivergate Tower with a grand opening gala.

This week, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn dyes the Hillsborough River a lucky shade of green for St. Patrick's Day. The same day also sees the return of Flicks and Food Trucks, a monthly event that marries independent film, micro-brews and food at Grand Central at Kennedy.

Look to the weeks ahead and the list goes on: the Cigar City Brewing Criterium & Street Festival on March 31 will bring 600 cyclists from across the country to downtown's streets. The Erase Hate Festival on April 21 will be "a call to action for civility, kindness and respect" featuring powerhouse alt-country singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile.

All are events designed to get people out into the streets and bring the community together to activate and appreciate Tampa's growing arts scene and thriving cultural spaces.

Thought leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs from Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando's creative communities kept the momentum going at one of Channelside's newest focal points, Stageworks Theatre, as 83 Degrees Media engaged panelists and audience in a conversation about placemaking during the fourth installment of its "Not Your Average Speakers'' series.

Loving Tampa Bay

Tracy Midulla Reller, Hillsborough Community College instructor and Tempus Projects founder in South Seminole Heights; Robin Nigh, City of Tampa public art manager; Shaun Drinkard, director of placemaking with the Tampa Downtown Partnership; Monte Olinger, principal and creative director at Baker Barrios Architects; Peter Hepner, architect and chair of Tampa Museum of Art's board of directors; and Bryan Roberts, owner of Eco-Tech Construction, took the stage to discuss "Creating Place: The Influence of Art & Design."

Moderator Peter Kageyama, St. Pete champion and author of "For The Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places," started the conversation by establishing that the word "love'' does not get used often enough when describing cities.

Kageyama: We typically have a laundry list of things we'd like to see change in our neighborhoods, but what is it about our region that excites people? What keeps them here and what can they take away from the Tampa Bay region to share with other cool kids in Chicago, Portland or Seattle when they ask, "Where are you from?''

Panelists and audience members: We appreciate the little things most. Better to have 1,000 things going on, than one great big thing. The Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children's Museum are glowing additions to downtown, but their coolness is greatly enhanced when outdoor events are happening on a regular basis.

For Drinkard, seeing Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park evolve from concept to creation to its daily use as a public space is cause for excitement and inspiration to continue developing a strong sense of place. The Tampa Riverwalk is really becoming the connector that community leaders once envisioned.

"It's an opportunity to see the seeds of culture starting to begin in our community," Hepner adds.

Creating sustainable places and spaces is key, says Roberts, who built Earthship Florida near Bradenton. More could be done in the Tampa Bay region to recycle just about everything we use and to be smarter about energy use.

All agreed that Tampa, St. Petersburg and the larger Tampa Bay region are a work in progress -- evolving, growing, maturing -- not yet ready to make the Top 10 lists of "coolest'' cities. Sure, we have warts and flaws. Cooler cities have lots more going on. But let's find opportunities in the challenges.

That was the overall sentiment of about 90 people who nearly filled the theater to communicate and connect with each other, find new ideas and inspiration. Some were there in hopes of finding potential collaborators; others were simply eager to hear the panelists as well as other audience members.

As one attendee said afterward: "I met two people I've wanted to know and I'm planning to follow up on some of the ideas I heard. That's what I'm taking away and that's the value of what 83 Degrees is doing for our community.''

What's Next?

Preparations for the upcoming Republican National Convention will certainly assist in the beautification of downtown, but it takes events and planned public activities like Lights on Tampa: Agua Luces (the colorful lighting of the Platt Street, Brorein Street, Kennedy Boulevard and CSX Railroad bridges) to really make Tampa Bay shine.

Consensus among Tuesday's panel and audience was unanimous -- bring on more public art and public places to get people interacting in shared spaces.

"Art straightens your heart so your head works," Arnett says. "If you wake up in the morning and see a vista of all these lighted buildings, it kind of helps you get ready for the day."

The NYAS event was underwritten by Baker Barrios Architects, Stageworks Theatre, Edit Suites and White Book Agency.

The next "Not Your Average Speakers'' event with 83 Degrees is planned for April 19 at Walker Brands around the issue of attracting and retaining talent. Mingling starts at 5 with the panel discussion beginning promptly at 5:30. Save the date!

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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