In an article in the Tampa Bay Times in late September, Mayor Bob Buckhorn discussed his ideas for the park, including adding a restaurant and retail, setting off alarms with Councilman Frank Reddick.
Reddick had other issues as well, such as wanting to unearth more about a deal that the City Council and Mayor Pam Iorio made in 2003 with the nonprofit Stewards Foundation, whose mission is to use rowing to teach responsibility and teamwork to young people. The agreement allowed the foundation to lease areas of the park for $1 a year for 25 years; so far Stewards has built a temporary boathouse in the park, but not a permanent structure as originally contemplated.
The concerns of Reddick and other councilpersons prompted the mayor's chief of staff, Santiago Corrada, to go before the Council today and explain just what is going on with Riverfront Park.
Corrada explained that although Riverfront is a publicly owned park conveyed to the city by the University of Tampa 40 years ago, a number of agreements have been made by city officials with the Boys and Girls Club and Tampa Prep to use some of the fields and parking areas.
But he wanted to emphasize that there would be plenty of opportunity for the public to weigh in on any major changes to the park. "To my knowledge...we have never gone in and master planned or changed the park without a lot of public input and without this council or any other council being involved in the ultimate contract for any renovations or improvements," Corrada emphasized.
He did say one thing the city would like improve is the "re-orientation" of Laurel Street, which connects downtown with the northern part of the park on the west bank of the Hillsborough.
Buckhorn is working on a myriad of plans for the west bank, such as razing the 70-year-old-plus North Boulevard Homes public housing complex, and adding more housing and retail to the area.
City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern asked Corrada about Buckhorn's comments in the Times that he was contemplating putting a restaurant into the park, an idea that he's also explored for Curtis Hixon and the proposed Water Works Park.
Santiago downplayed the comment. "I believe that's been taken and some folks have run with it to say that there's permanently going to be a restaurant in there." And he said that no request for proposals has been issued. "We are not there yet. We have to make sure that we don't set things on fire that are not on fire," he added.
But that didn't appease Councilman Reddick. "There would not be even any smoke if it was not started by the man who heads the office over there," pointing toward the mayor's office (vaguely). "That's where that came from, so let's be clear on that."
Reddick had lots of questions about the city's deal with the Stewards Foundation, Tampa Prep and the Boys & Girls Club, wondering if members of those groups had priority access to the park's basketball courts, softball fields or tennis courts.
"If this is still a public facility, and you have an agreement where you let a private entity have priority over a public facility, then that's a problem," Reddick said.
Corrada said the public/private deals at Riverfront Park are not unique and are replicated at other city facilities. He wouldn't comment on whether that was proper or not, but said they were all done legally, and has never been an issue in the past.
Councilman Mike Suarez asked if it was possible for the city to unilaterally cancel the 25-year pact with the Stewards Foundation. He was told by a city attorney that wouldn't be possible. "There's a lot of fear and rumor-mongering that goes on, and we have to listen to it," Suarez complained.
The Florida Sentinel-Bulletin reported last week that after Buckhorn's comments about the park, "the surrounding community didn't like what they heard..."
The Council voted unanimously on a resolution sponsored by Frank Reddick that would have the city's legal department review its contract with the Stewards Foundation and report back to them next month.