As the nation’s attention turns to Tampa, Fla., next week when politicians, reporters and activists will swarm the city for the Republican National Convention, local leaders have used the spotlight as an opportunity to accelerate projects -- especially those with artistic and aesthetic components -- to help the city put its best foot forward as it takes the national stage.
Most notably, Tampa dramatically accelerated completion of the latest segment of its pedestrian pathway called the Riverwalk. It was originally slated to open in February 2013, but will now open this month. That latest piece of the project cost about $1.44 million and now gives the city just over a mile of uninterrupted pathways.
Eventually, the Riverwalk will include more than two miles of paved walkways along Tampa's waterfront that link parks with the downtown area and attractions like the performing arts center, convention center and museums. The idea, which dates to the mid-1970s, has started and stopped over the years, but Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who took office last year, has made the project a priority.
Earlier this year, the project got some national attention when the federal government awarded the city a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant that included $9.5 million for two of the last segments of the project. Those will be complete by spring 2015. The total cost of the entire Riverwalk is projected at $32 million, according to the Tampa Tribune.
But the Riverwalk isn't the only improvement the city has made to boost its image as visitors arrive.
This month, the city launched a new, permanent art installation dubbed “Agua Luces,” or water lights, that features brightly colored, constantly changing LED lights illuminating five of the city’s bridges. The idea, which was resurrected by Buckhorn, is the brainchild of a Chicago artist who made a similar project with bridges in the Windy City.
The city’s history museum, the Tampa Bay History Center, recently got a series of new boat slips -- at a cost of $478,000 -- to give boaters easy access to the Riverwalk, the museum and downtown.
Additionally, the city recently refurbished an iconic mural on the side of a police building.
Other fixes have been a bit more mundane but nonetheless will improve the city's image to visitors.
The city demolished 36 dilapidated boat slips at a city-owned marina, spent $1.2 million to renovate the supports along the Bayshore Boulevard corridor, and put about $40,000 toward infrastructure improvements downtown, such as replacing sidewalks and ramps that weren’t up to federal ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards and replacing damaged bricks.
And the beautification efforts will continue after the convention is over. The city is spending $1.2 million to build a pedestrian-friendly area between a waterfront park and a federal courthouse that will ultimately be renovated as a hotel. The area will have an emphasis on public art, though the art won't be installed until after visitors leave.
This year, the city selected the owner of one the city's most popular restaurants to redevelop Tampa's historic Water Works Building on the riverfront. And Buckhorn has coordinated with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., to help conduct long-term land-use planning.
A recent Salon piece notes that Tampa has historically been viewed as a symbol of sprawl and a place that's not hospitable to pedestrians. It noted that Florida Gov. Rick Scott killed a high-speed rail line that would have connected to Tampa, and voters in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, recently rejected a sales tax to fund a light rail system.
Even Buckhorn acknowledged recently that, "the reality, whether we like it or not, is Tampa is not a particularly pedestrian-friendly city," according to the Tampa Tribune.
But Buckhorn has been widely praised within Tampa for his efforts to change the aesthetic of a city in hopes of creating a lively downtown that will be able to retain young people.
In addition to the Riverwalk, he's now touting a plan to partner with St. Petersburg to bypass the county and hold a city referendum to fund a new transit system. Doing so would require permission from the state Legislature.
"I'm absolutely convinced that in 10 years, when we get done with this planning process and as things start to fill in, that our downtown will be radically different -- radically different -- than what we know now," Buckhorn said earlier this year.