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Tampa's new mayor seeks to connect Riverwalk

TAMPA - One extension will allow pedestrians to walk from downtown to the Channel District, without detours. It was one of Mayor Pam Iorio's signature projects – a 2.6-mile walkway along Garrison Channel and the Hillsborough River meant to showcase Tampa's waterfront. But when Iorio stepped down from office earlier this year after serving two terms, she left segments of the multimillion-dollar, three-decades-old Riverwalk project unfinished. Now her successor, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, is picking up where she left off.
Construction is under way on a two-part, $3.5 million segment of the walkway: one portion will extend it from the south side of Brorein Street to the southern side of the CapTrust building at Whiting Street; the other will connect the path to MacDill Park. The extension, when completed by early next year, will allow pedestrians to walk from downtown all the way to the Channel District, without taking detours on side streets. "We're getting so close," said Lee Hoffman, Riverwalk's development manager. After completion of the Brorein to MacDill Park segment, the city will turn its attention to two final gaps in the walkway – one from MacDill to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, and another from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts to Tampa Heights. But first, the city will need to get funding. The first segment, estimated at a cost of $8.8 million, would involve building a walkway extending out into the river and under the Kennedy Boulevard bridge to Curtis Hixon. Hoffman said the city has a $1.4 million federal grant to use for the 1,460-foot Kennedy Boulevard segment, but is still working on public and private funds for construction. "I have the designs, I have the permits, I just need some more cash," he said. Once those two segments are done, Hoffman said the city will focus on a roughly one-mile portion of the project running from the performing arts center to Tampa Heights. Developers of the Tampa Heights project built a 400-foot walkway across from the park but, falling victim to the housing crisis, didn't connect to the city's portion of the project. Hoffman said previous estimates put the cost for extending that section of the walkway, from the performing arts center to North Boulevard bridge, at more than $4 million. Conceived by former Mayor Bill Poe in the mid-1970s, Riverwalk has been plagued by a series of setbacks caused by a lack of funding and problems acquiring private land. Several successive mayors made contributions to the walkway, earmarking funds or adding segments, but the project didn't gain momentum until Iorio took the helm. She oversaw the design and construction of key portions of the pathway, but was forced to turn her attention to wrestling with the city's troubled finances during her final term. Ultimately, the project – which is nearly 50 percent complete – will cost about $30 million from Channelside to the performing arts center. That's less than the original estimates of more than $40 million, which included a number of amenities that have been removed. Buckhorn, who made completing the Riverwalk project one of his campaign pledges, has earmarked $810,000 in gas tax proceeds for the project in the fiscal year 2012 budget. * * * * * City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern said she wants to see the city complete the downtown segments of the project, but has "mixed feelings" about using additional public funding. "It's not a good time for the city to be spending taxpayers' money," she said. Mulhern said she wants the city to get more aggressive going after grants and private dollars to complete the project. "That's how it was supposed to work," she said. Hoffman said the city is doing just that, courting the private sector and going after state and federal grants, but admits the recession has made those efforts extremely difficult. Roger Kurz, executive director of the Friends of Tampa Riverwalk, said his nonprofit has raised about $2 million in contributions for the project to date, at least half of the money from a nonprofit run by Tampa developer Don Wallace and his wife, Erika. He said the group has also embarked on a fundraising campaign that offers individuals and companies discounts to downtown venues – including the Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Bay History Museum – in exchange for a yearly membership with the group. Money raised from the memberships would go toward construction costs. The group is also actively going after "big ticket" donors such as large corporations. "Still, as everyone knows, this is not an easy time to be raising money," Kurz said. Riverwalk backers were also encouraged by the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization's recent decision to elevate funding requests to complete the remaining segments on a list of local projects awaiting state and federal funding. Harry Cohen, who chairs council's finance committee, said he too thinks the city needs to complete the project, but cautioned that that might not happen soon. "Given the fiscal constraints, it may take us a while to get to that point," he said.

cwade@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7679

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