What's Working In Tampa Bay: Not Your Average Speakers

Nightlife in Downtown Tampa isn't what it used to be. Take Thursday evening, Oct. 20.

Bank of America continued its exhibition of Cuban-born, Tampa-based artist Isidoro Tejeda in observance of Hispanic Heritage Month. Taps Wine and Beer Merchants hosted the TBTF Foundation's Drink, Dance and Donate event to raise funds in support of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) career and educational programs for at-risk youth.

Families took advantage of the pleasantly crisp fall weather by frolicking through Curtis Hixon Park along the Tampa Riverwalk as the Downtown Y's Corporate 5K run took off on Ashley Drive. City Bike Tampa went for its Thursday Night Group Bicycle Ride as "The Addams Family'' opened at Carol Morsani Hall at the Straz and the Tampa Bay Lightning hosted the New York Islanders at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Thousands of people flocked into Tampa's downtown at dusk to create an impressive night-time urban environment that proved the perfect setting for the launch of 83 Degrees Media's "Not Your Average Speakers" series.

The series aims to provoke a community conversation about the transformation of urban spaces and places, and the people and organizations who are helping move the Tampa Bay region forward. What is Tampa getting right? What could be improved? What more is needed?

About 100 people from Tampa, St. Pete, Bradenton, Clearwater, Lakeland, Orlando and even Fort Lauderdale and Gainesville -- including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Downtown Partnership Executive Director Christine Burdick and Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Ray Chiaramonte -- nearly filled the ground floor of the cabaret-style Jaeb Theater inside the Straz Center to listen, learn and engage in a discussion with six "doers'' in Tampa Bay's business, architecture, academic, government and entrepreneurial communities.

Buzzwords of the evening included "connectivity,'' "design,'' "infrastructure" and "architecture."

Starting From The Ground Up

Delving into Baker Barrios Architects' Encore Tampa project connecting downtown Tampa to Ybor City seemed like the perfect jumping off point for discussion, suggested moderator Laura Moody, co-anchor of Fox 13's Good Day Tampa Bay morning show.

The 40-acre mixed-use planned community -- bordered by Central Avenue, Cass, Nebraska and Scott streets -- is under construction and will include homes and apartments for families and senior citizens, a grocery store, a middle school, green space and more, says Robert K. Ledford II, managing principal of Baker Barrios Architects in Tampa. Design sketches of the neighborhood were in the lobby at the entrance to the Jaeb for attendees to see.

Encore Tampa, nicknamed "Downtown's Tempo District," will populate the space northeast of downtown -- once the site of a massive public housing complex -- with new residential, businesses and job opportunities, says Ledford. The entire project is designed to honor black musicians -- Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway -- who once played and sang at clubs along historic Central Avenue.

It will surely be a welcome change for the neighborhood, panelists agreed. The current lack of basic necessities for living in downtown -- no signature grocery store or hardware store, only one gas station (BP Channelside on East Kennedy), etc. -- is a huge contributing factor to the difficulty of luring families there now despite a thriving Rampello K-8 Downtown Partnership School, Blake High School of the Arts, Tampa Prep, the University of Tampa and new developments such as Stageworks Theater and USF's under-construction CAMLS (Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation) project.

Small businesses, like the Duckweed Urban Market on East Polk Street are starting to trickle in, but the need for a larger selection of stores within walking distance and more consumer choices remains.

The revitalization of downtown Tampa was the common thread of conversation throughout the hour-long discussion.

Christina Anton of Anton Castro Law expressed her affinity for her relatively new Harbour Island neighborhood -- a burgeoning higher-end residential community built on top of dredge from the channel leading to the Tampa Port.  Anton said she'd like to see a greater focus on night life and transit in downtown Tampa to attract people and jobs.

But how to attract them? Part of the solution runs along the Hillsborough River.

(re)Stitch Tampa To Make Connections

Panelist Shannon Bassett, assistant professor at the USF School of Architecture and Community Design, is heading up (re)Stitch Tampa, a University of South Florida urban design project funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant. It's an international, open-ideas competition that is looking for ways to leverage the HIllsborough River for what it truly is -- "an incredible amenity, ecological catalyst and economic engine," says Bassett.

(Re)Stitch has already received design proposals from China, Egypt, Japan and Germany.

"The frame for the competition is to take what we have and make design excellence," she says.

Bassett's vision of Tampa's unique twist on design excellence was influenced by a recent trip to New York City's High Line -- an elevated, abandoned rail that weaves through the West Side neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Clinton/Hell's Kitchen and was transformed into a 1.45 mile-long park complete with benches and lush landscaping. It too started out as an open-ideas design competition and has since spawned similar proposals in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Bassett also previously led a five-week class project that encouraged students to suggest design plans for the Bradenton Riverwalk in Manatee County south of Tampa, which broke ground last month and is expected to open in the fall of 2012.

A further developed Tampa Riverwalk could go a long way in attracting customers to the cafes, restaurants and retail clamoring for waterfront space -- an idea that has seen great execution and success along Beach Drive in St. Petersburg.

Along with creating a sense of place, the region also must do more to attract venture capitalists and financially support budding entrepreneurs and startups, suggested Marvin Scaff, co-founder of Gazelle Lab, a new St. Pete-based entrepreneurial incubator.

Gazelle Lab is modeled after a similar successful project in Boulder, CO that started six years ago, Scaff says. More than 100 companies applied for help from Gazelle in its initial call for pitches over the summer, but only six that showed the right mix of passion, creativity and tenacity were chosen. Applicants who re-hash existing products, like Facebook for pets, need not apply (Scaff refers to them as "me too" ideas.)

The chosen applicants will pitch their start-ups to investors on Nov. 17, along with pitches from Tampa Bay area students.

Many Small Things Create Jobs

Mike Kennedy, executive director of Suncoast Community Capital in Bradenton, stressed that his role at the new nonprofit isn't looking for the next big thing, but a bunch of small things. He specializes in helping businesses with fewer than 5 employees and $50,000 in capital expand through microloans from $2,000-$10,000.

"If one out of three microenterprises hired one employee, the country would be at full employment," Kennedy said, citing an Association for Enterprise Opportunity study released in 2011. The idea is to return economic power back to Main Street, and away from Wall Street.

Questions from the audience triggered conversations ranging from the safety of downtown Tampa to the willingness of local investors to invest in startups.

But the question that got the room buzzing the most came from Jonathan Moore of Rojo Architecture who asked, where does the middle class fit in the grand scheme of a revitalized urban core? Could a family of four realistically live downtown?

Yes, Bassett says, if the city provided the proper infrastructure to its citizens.

"Why can't I bike to downtown or USF?" she questioned, citing the efforts of Tampa's Green Artery project, which intends to solve that very conundrum.

As time ran out, Scaff offered one last parting piece of advice to the crowd -- continue the conversation through social media.

Join 83 Degrees for additional conversation online at Facebook and Twitter using hashtag #83degreesNYAS.

"Mayor Buckhorn doesn't have all the answers," Scaff said. "He's looking for people to help him."

Continuing The Conversation

Attendees shared their insights on the event before departing for continued conversations and drinks at Taps Beer and Wine on North Ashley Drive.

Audience member and community advocate Dena Leavengood said she admired the initiative of the 83 Degrees Media speakers series and hopes it will spread the word on issues that need further work.

Social entrepreneur T. Hampton Dohrman said he appreciates the insights that Gazelle Lab co-Founder Scaff provides and would like to see a greater discussion around small entrepreneurial efforts.

University of South Florida architecture masters student Brett Freeman said he was attracted by the mix of speakers, and would like to see a bigger, broader audience to help mix-up the conversation and to make future events more engaging.

Panel member Bassett said she especially appreciated having the opportunity to introduce and discuss the idea of connectivity among people.

"It'd be interesting to follow up in six months and see where we're at," she says.

Chiaramonte of the Hillsborough MPO said the coolest thing about the audience was that it was filled with people he'd never seen before at government sponsored public hearings and discussions around development. Engaging new and more people is a huge value that 83 Degrees provides the community, he said.

Mayor Buckhorn agreed, saying on Friday, "I enjoyed it immensely. It was candid, creative and we need to do more of these.''

The consensus: Great start for the series. Next time, let's hear less moderated talk and more Q&A. Point taken!

Next up for Not Your Average Speakers: Champions of Change on November 17. Details to come in 83 Degrees.

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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