In his State of the City address last week, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn urged local residents to make the city as good as any place in the country.
In Tampa’s Seminole Heights, that’s exactly what a group of active and engaged citizens have been trying to do for years — and in the process have often found themselves at cross-purposes with City Hall.
A December 2000 cover story in this newspaper (then called the Weekly Planet) described a situation that would persist for years to come. According to reporter Fran Gilpin’s “Getting the business,” the district’s small business owners wondered ruefully how many other “masochists” would be willing to open up shop in the area, given the surfeit of regulations dictated by the city’s zoning department.
Things on that front are slowly beginning to change. But in the meantime, a number of self-proclaimed pioneers have plowed ahead and made Seminole Heights one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in Tampa Bay.
Pat Kemp remembers how it used to be. A co-founder of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association (one of four such associations in the district), she has lived in the area for over 25 years. She says there’s been a “huge evolution” in the neighborhood since the late 1980s, and she’s excited to be seeing what many residents have always wanted: community commercial development, which is now taking hold at a greater pace than ever.
The most well-known examples are the quality restaurants that have opened in just the past four years, especially Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café and James Beard semi-finalist The Refinery. Call them the Beatles and the Stones, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The two establishments have achieved what was once regarded as impossible: putting the words “hip” and “Tampa” together in the same sentence.
But community commercial development also means places like Health Mutt, Cleanse Apothecary and Microgroove, all of which have established themselves in the ’hood in recent years.
Another factor in the renaissance in the area is the reduction of crime. Shawn Hicks helped organized the Old Seminole Heights vehicle patrol (aka “hooker patrol”) a decade ago to chase off the ladies of the evening who used to ply their wares on Nebraska Avenue. With the reduction of prostitution came an attendant decrease in drug crime. He says that made it a little safer to be out on the street, which made the neighborhood more business-friendly.
“I think the demographics are changing,” says Sherry-Taylor King, owner of Sherry’s YesterDaze, a vintage clothing store that moved from Hyde Park to Seminole Heights a decade ago. A few years later she co-founded the Seminole Heights Business Guild, which she says has been a place where the “changing of the guard” has taken place to some extent, with the older generation of neighborhood association leaders now being joined by new businessmen and women.
Del Acosta, the city of Tampa’s former historic preservation manager, says the district has some “excellent pockets” of good historic structures, and has been a spawning ground for creative people. “I think Seminole Heights is a very pleasant success story with a lot of determination and what people working together can accomplish.”
Not that every business is welcomed with open arms.
Take the proposed Wal-Mart at 1720 E. Hillsborough Ave. It’s being built on the edge of Seminole Heights’ Hampton Terrace neighborhood, where, in the mid-aughts, residents were so fervently against historical designation (and the many restrictions that come along with it) that they seceded from the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association and created their own separate group.
Hampton Terrace Association President Wesley Warren says most people he’s spoken with are excited about the store. “East Tampa is ripe for development,” he says of the district to the immediate east of Seminole Heights. “We’re just concerned with the possible cut-through traffic.”
But Leslie Mattern of Mattern Labs and the Seminole Heights Business Guild says her group takes considerable pride in keeping things local and independently owned, so having a big-box store when “we’re trying so hard to develop this new identity of being artistic and independently owned is really frustrating for us.”
Nevertheless, the new Wal-Mart is a done deal, as is the Family Dollar opening soon at 5100 N. Florida Ave., right near the popular neighborhood gathering spot The Independent. News of its imminent arrival last summer generated extensive opposition.
One of the arguments against the consumer-friendly store is that there are already so many of them in the area — at our count no less than six within four miles of the latest one. Some residents say their hard feelings about the new store haven’t abated, and they intend to boycott it when it does open.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are still some older small businesses who haven’t yet felt the love, either.