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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Henderson: Poe left giant steps on Tampa’s path to growth

During the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe had rented a house there so friends could visit and take in the Games. George Levy was among those invited, and once he got there people had only one request.

“They told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t bring up the half-cent sales tax,’ ” Levy said Friday.

It was known as the Community Investment Tax, which was about to go before voters to pay for (among many other things) a stadium for the Buccaneers. Poe hated everything about the tax, and Levy supported it.

Naturally, Levy brought it up, and pretty soon they took the “discussion” out back so they wouldn’t disturb everyone else in the house. A little while later, someone told them to come back inside because lights from neighboring houses started popping on so folks inside could see what the fuss was all about.

“We argued over the stadium,” Levy said, laughing at the memory. “We argued over everything. But I’ll tell you, I have as much respect for Bill Poe as anyone I’ve ever known. We could agree, disagree, whatever. No matter what, we would still be friends.”

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Poe died late Thursday at age 82, but the footprints he leaves behind are immense. Newer residents may not know this, but trust me — his name should be on a lot more things than just that downtown parking garage on Ashley Street.

He could be direct and blunt, and he wasn’t afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. He wasn’t trying to intimidate anyone, though. He was trying to help a city realize its promise.

Poe was mayor here from 1974-79, when Tampa was emerging from a sleepy southern city into a robust place that believed anything was possible. The economy was booming, professional sports had found us, and it didn’t seem outrageous at all when Tampa called itself America’s Next Great City.

That, of course, would have made Bill Poe the nation’s next great mayor. I can tell you for sure that he was awfully good while he sat in the big chair.

He began the push for the Riverwalk 40 years ago, when he looked beyond the tumbleweeds that took over downtown after 5 p.m. and saw what could be. The only wonder is why it has taken so long for that visionary idea to come true.

He helped create the Gasparilla Distance Classic. I covered the news conference to announce the event, and remember wondering why would anyone believe people would come out for something like that.

Well, 29,781 people participated in the races this year.

With all that though, we take you back to the Community Investment Tax. Even after voters approved the measure, Poe was convinced they had been hoodwinked. He financed a lawsuit to stop the tax, and he took it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court before losing.

He did that because he believed in his heart he was right, and he was willing to fight for it. The cause was personal, but he could still be friends with anyone on the other side of the issue. Some things just mattered more than politics.

“I trusted the guy,” Levy said. “I believed in the guy. And I’ll miss him.”

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