Tampa's urban professionals build community in CUPS

Tower by tower the Channel District's population is on the rise.

SkyHouse Channelside will open by March 2015; another - The Martin at Meridian - is poised to start construction. A new land purchase by Florida Crystals Corp. sets the stage for another mid-rise residential tower.

And Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is expected to soon unveil a transformative vision for the Channelside Bay Plaza and a slew of surrounding properties that he owns. A hotel, residences, shops, offices, entertainment venues and a baseball stadium are real and rumored prospects. Vinik just closed on the purchase of the Waterside Marriott.

The entire waterside downtown neighborhood is filling in and going vertical, replacing a collection of abandoned buildings, parking lots, warehouses and light industry. 

But a grassroots group of residents believe building a neighborhood will take more than bricks and mortar.

This past summer they launched CUPS, or Channel District Urban Professionals Society. On Oct. 4 the group hosted Channel District Connect at BoConcept, a contemporary furniture store at 1208 Kennedy Blvd by Grand Central at Kennedy. 

Such social mixers are designed to weave a connecting network, neighbor to neighbor. CUPS is the starting point for a collective voice for the Channel District's residents and businesses.

"This is community building," says CUPS' co-founder, Sid Hasan. He is a Washington, D.C. transplant who moved to the Channel District earlier this year with his wife and young son.

Building community

Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman were invited guest speakers. There were drawings, prizes and opportunities for networking. Afterward, food and drink was provided by Pour House and SkyHouse Channelside, just two of several businesses sponsoring the event. 

Community organizing comes instinctively to Hasan. He travels widely as a partner and consultant with DISYS (Digital Intelligence Systems). And wherever he lives, Hasan is active in local causes including fund-raising and corporate sponsorships for such organizations as the American Cancer Society.

He is attracted to the Channel District as a model in urban living. But Hasan says the Channel District's residents and businesses need to "flex our muscles" before the next wave of development surges.

"We don't have to wait for that," he says. "CUPS was born out of a selfish need. Community is such a huge thing. And, we have everything in Channel District to live, work and play."

City officials estimate the district's apartments and condominiums shelter about 3,000 residents, counting 1.5 residents per 2,199 units. Many residents are young professionals with solid careers ahead of them. Some are empty-nesters with children and careers in the rear view mirrors. 

"Our message is that what we now see is a Channel District that is a growing district of people and families," says Lauren Campbell, a founding CUPS member. She is a commercial real estate agent with J.A. Barnett Realty Group.

And Hasan says they have "social capital" as residents, business owners and drivers of the district's revenue growth.

The neighborhoods of  the Channel District fall within a city-managed Community Redevelopment Area. A portion of property tax revenues collected within the CRA must be re-invested in community-based projects, generally for infrastructure.  For fiscal year 2014 Channel District received about $3 million in property tax revenues.

Over the years revenues have paid for a major flood relief project, the Washington Street Park and dog run and part of the budget to build Stageworks Theatre at Grand Central on Kennedy. The district's revenues also fund the Neighborhood Amenity Incentive Program which reimburses Channel District businesses up to $10,000 in fees for building permits, water meters and connections and inspections.

Growing shops

A retail customer base is growing for local businesses including Powerhouse Gym, Zelda's Cafe & Deli, Victory Coffee & Tea Bar, and The Salon 1.0. Paul Mitchell Focus Salon. SkyHouse and The Martin alone will add about 950 urban dwellers to the mix in the next year or so. Florida Crystals' project could boost growth by more than 400 residents.

Veterinarian Timothy Hodge lives on Harbour Island. He is a partner in a North Tampa-based animal clinic but had been eyeing Channel District's growth. In January he opened the Harbourside Animal Hospital at 1112 Channelside Drive.

"I think CUPS is going to be a voice. We all benefit from that," Hodge says. "I'm excited. I think it's great to move forward. It's grassroots organizing. And, the whole idea with CUPS and its members and those involved in its leadership is to branch out and say 'we're here city of Tampa (and Hillsborough County). What can you do for us and what can we do for you?' "

Resident and business owner Henry Lewis hopes even more businesses will follow. "We need retail," he says. "We need people who want to sell soap or whatever."

Lewis is a Channel District pioneer and an eyewitness to the district's history since the late 1960s. He remembers when the district's population was fewer than 100. 

As a teenager he took a job at City Blue Print Co., which creates blueprints for the construction industry. He eventually bought the company, and is now the president and owner of  City Blue Digital Imaging, located in a four-story building at 11th and Washington Streets.

Lewis owns the building and lives in a residence on the top floor. Over the years he has been a citizen adviser on Channel District's board, a volunteer group aiding the city in development strategies.

Community involvement and connections will be a major factor in the district's future, Lewis says. He has seen past efforts come and go.

"We need to connect," he says. "You go outside and no one knows anyone. That's why I pushed the dog park."
And why he is now a member of CUPS.

Christopher Johnson also is a CUPS booster. He lives in the district and works in the Westshore Business District for Florida Philanthropic Network. He grew up in a military family, learning to make friends and build community at each new posting. "My personal mantra in life is people, passion and purpose," Johnson says. "That's why I get involved in my community."

There are amazing opportunities for community building on the way as Vinik and the city ready plans for the next phase of Channel District redevelopment, Hodges says.

"It's all one sweeping change for the whole district."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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