A few years ago, Keith Malson, owner of the Sulphur Springs Sandwich Shop, and Tampa realtor Debi Johnson were floating down the Hillsborough River, looking up at the Sulphur Springs Tower when they finally jumped on an idea.
“We always thought we should have a music festival at the River Tower Park, so we did,” Johnson says.
What started as a plot to bring music to the park quickly turned into a proposal to improve and preserve a well-recognized Tampa landmark that many people see every day as they drive along I-275 about six miles north of downtown.
Built in 1927 by Grover Poole, the water tower then served the Sulphur Springs Hotel that used to reside there.
With the natural Sulphur Spring nearby, the resort wanted to capitalize on this local treasure and create a bustling tourist attraction with Florida’s first shopping mall -- Mave’s Arcade -- located on the first floor of the hotel.
This business venture led by Josiah S. Richardson failed six years later due to the collapse of Tampa Electric Company dam, which flooded and destroyed the arcade. Serving a short stint as a drive-in theater among other operations, the land is now a neighborhood park that holds memories of Florida’s past.
Spearheaded by Johnson and Malson, Preserve Our Tower is a grassroots campaign run by an eight-member committee to raise funds to preserve and restore the Sulphur Springs Tower and River Tower Park. Their inaugural River Tower Festival, held last November, was the first large fund-raising effort to start shedding some light on this oft-forgotten park.
“We had 10 live bands, seven DJs, five food trucks, and 24 additional vendors for various things, mostly art,” Johnson says. “The festival happened to be on the coldest day we had all year last year. It rained that morning and was very windy, so attendance wasn’t as good as we expected. We sold 700 tickets, most of which were purchased in advance. Around 450 people came out that day. We were excited because that’s a really good turnout for such a bad [weather] day.”
Despite feeling like they were flying by the seat of their pants, everything came out well.
“It was interesting to hear people coming through the front gate where some had no idea what this place was, while others reminisced about what it was like when they were growing up and there was a pool here, so it was nice to hear different perspectives of the park,” says Jeffrey Silverstein, a member of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association and Preserve Our Tower.
Including a grant from the Hillsborough County Cultural Assets Commission and donations from sponsors, Preserve Our Tower raised around $17,000 from the River Tower Festival.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money to restore the tower. It wasn’t our expectation to get everything we need this time around. Our goal was to bring attention to the park and these needs, and hopefully create public-private partnerships while continuing to seek grants and other ways to fund these renovations,” Johnson says.
Big ticket fixes like repainting the tower, which was quoted over $80,000, maybe out of the question at the moment, but Preserve Our Tower’s first order of business is to get this Tampa jewel on the National Register of Historic Places and add a plaque with the tower’s history.
“People keep asking if the tower will be open to the public, but we’re not trying to get it restored to the point of it functioning; we just want to get it restored to the point where it’s not falling apart,” Silverstein says.
Besides garnishing the tower with a new plaque, Preserve Our Tower is working with Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association to set up its own non-profit to process funds.
“We are trying to partner with USF’s Digital Heritage & Humanities Collection so we can use their tools to save money for the studies that need to be done for this cause,” Johnson says. “Once we preserve our tower, there are many things we can do like put a boardwalk or walking path along the river. There are many places for improvement.”
Looking up at the tower, committee member Amber France recalls her experience at the first Gasparilla Music Festival when the crowd was small. Now, over 20,000 people look forward to this yearly gathering. Preserve Our Tower hopes that this coming November, the River Tower Festival will be on more people’s radar to keep growing and garnering bigger donors.
“It was a great festival. We felt like for the first year we did this, we got some great responses with sponsors. Some people trusted us to do this and gave some substantial funds, which was nice to see,” Johnson explains. “In my mind, River Tower Festival will be a mini Gasparilla Music Festival that people will be looking forward to every year.”
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