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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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O’Neill: Improvements in East Tampa symbolize progress

Sometimes we — as in government and the media — get so caught up in the high-profile, high-impact scenarios around town that we risk losing our focus about what else matters.

What’s been the biggest buzz of late? Well, The Residences at the Riverwalk is a go, the final leg of the Riverwalk itself has begun and The Heights Project could be something special. Direct international flights to Latin America and Europe are assured, and Royal Caribbean is adding a cruise ship. Bollywood will be coming to town. Bristol-Myers Squibb is moving in. So is Trader Joe’s — and likely Amazon.

And let’s not forget that the Interstate 4 Connector is nearing completion. Then there’s the hotel-building surge and news that the Tampa Port Authority has voted to buy Channelside Bay Plaza. We’ve been reminded that the economic-engine that is MacDill Air Force Base is still worth going to the lobbying mattresses for. And another Super Bowl has been bid on. Plus, we’re still basking in the global afterglow of putting on that incident-free GOP convention last summer.

While all this may not yet fulfill all those “Megatrends” expectations, it is a reminder that this city is tacking in the right direction.

But you know what else was significant — tangibly and symbolically — the other day?

It was the official opening — presided over by Tampa’s official ribbon-cutter-in-chief — of the roundabout on 22nd Street near 22nd Avenue. It’s designed to move traffic more smoothly on this key artery that connects east Tampa with Ybor City — while also creating an aesthetic sense of place. It features brick-patterned crosswalks and colorful plants surrounding a monument-like obelisk in the center. The project was paid for with a combination of city, state and east Tampa special tax district funding.

“The roundabout is just a bricks-and-mortar symbol of the progress that’s been made,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn at the ribbon-cutting. “Improvements like this are more than infrastructure and landscaping; they’re about creating complete streets that work for everyone, generating new economic opportunities and transforming a community.”

Bob McDonaugh, the city’s administrator for economic opportunity, put it more succinctly: “A new front door for east Tampa.”

The traffic roundabout was, in fact, a vehicle for underscoring that Tampa is about more than an evolving waterfront, protean skyline, global preening and economic recruiting. It was about those who live and labor outside the glitz and glamour. That’s most of us.

It was also a rebranding extension of planned improvements aimed at putting further distance between east Tampa and its urban ghetto past. And, as someone who once taught at what is now N.B. Young Middle Magnet School at 1807 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (formerly Buffalo Avenue) back in the day, I can attest to what it was like around the College Hill Homes and Ponce de Leon Courts public housing complexes. It was depressing and inhospitable — even on days that did not end with police patrolling in riot gear. It was least Tampa. The school was not a safe haven from neighborhood walk-ons. I still recall ill-advisedly chasing punks into the projects. I wore working boots with rubber soles in expectation of just such scenarios.

In the 1990s, those slums were razed and replaced with a mixed neighborhood of working-class residents. The makeover was underwritten by a $32.5 million, federal HOPE VI grant. Today the Belmont Heights Estates have a well-maintained, viable neighborhood appearance and track record.

Now, thanks to the roundabout’s opening, there’s the finished, three-years-in-the-making, $5.6 million 22nd Street project that also includes more sidewalks, better street lights and new water and sewer lines. Several businesses have recently received the mayor’s ribbon-cutting treatment.

“I see an East Tampa that is ready to rise again, where people are investing,” says Buckhorn.

You have to believe the mayor also sees plenty of proud residents who belie that “least Tampa” label. That he sees a city making infrastructure inroads that send a signal to locals that they do, indeed, matter. And that while Tampa’s future obviously lies with the synergistic likes of CAMLS, M2 Gen, port containerization, meaningful mass transit and a revitalized Riverwalk, a city is only as good as the opportunities and quality of life afforded its most challenged residents.

More on Rays in Tampa

Three things seem assured on the subject of the Rays’ future in Tampa Bay.

First, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is — and has been — more of a barrier to progress than even Bud Selig, the problematic commissioner of Major League Baseball. In the name of “protecting taxpayers,” Foster has been playing that legally intimidating, Tampa-targeting, “tortious interference” card since he came to office four years ago. Selig voices MLB’s consensus concern that baseball revenue-sharing shouldn’t be a permanent subsidy — especially for a winning franchise.

Second, the lease that binds the Rays to Tropicana Field through 2027 decreases in leverage each year. For a serious suitor, one that has ridden out the recession and is enamored of major league-market status, a lease buy-out would be part of the cost of doing business.

Third, everything’s on hold through the MLB playoffs, the World Series and St. Petersburg’s mayoral election.

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