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Primordial soup was soothing

Step back to the New Tampa of the 1970s. You won't recognize it.

By JOHN BALZ, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002


PEBBLE CREEK -- New Tampa starts here, just off Pebble Creek Drive, in a cul-de-sac the size of a giant swimming pool.

Sixty-year-old Lea Butler sits in the living room, reclining on a beige couch and thumbing through a 30-year-old brochure of Pebble Creek. It advertises a "20 minute drive to downtown Tampa."

Butler's single-story concrete home with a covered and recessed foyer is the birthplace of New Tampa, the first one ever built. Butler herself is the closest thing the area has to a historian. Ask her what this place was like way back when, before the traffic and the people and the Muvico 20, and she'll tell you it was just like a small town.

"Everybody knew everybody," she said. "If your kids did something bad, somebody told on them because somebody was sure to know. You depended on each other if you needed something. You didn't want to drive 7.5 miles -- 15 miles round trip -- to get milk, so you went to your neighbor."

The closest convenience store was at Bearss Avenue, the closest grocery store at Fletcher Avenue. When Butler's house was built in 1972, Pebble Creek was the only development. She remembers the rest of New Tampa as a palmetto patch populated by deer, otters and the Florida panther.

Those who first conceived of New Tampa could hardly have contemplated a linear town of close to 30,000, complete with country clubs and houses selling for more than $1-million.

Their goals were more modest.

Pebble Creek's first developers envisioned a community of modular homes -- mobile homes without wheels -- surrounding a golf course. Butler says they wanted to build another Sun City. The developers worked out the zoning with Hillsborough County, laid the underground pipes and dug a well before going belly up without selling a single house.

At the time Butler worked at the golf club and commuted from Temple Terrace.

She worked as a bookkeeper for the next developer, the one who built her house. In fact, Bulter's house was the construction and sales office with orange-red walls, blue shag carpet, and snakeskin wallpaper in the bathroom. Butler worked in what would later become her daughter's bedroom.

Those first houses sold for about $42,000. Butler bought the sales office in 1977 for $45,000. When she and her family moved in, Tampa Palms was still six years away, and her son would hunt, fish and race go-carts behind their property.

The only road was Bruce B. Downs, jestfully referred to as "the road to nowhere," and the idea of traffic jams seemed as distant as flying cars.

"We used to laugh and say, "Oh, one day we'll need a stoplight.' You could drive all the way to Tampa without seeing anybody," she said.

Butler's next door neighbor, Chris Pearson, 39, grew up in Pebble Creek, in the same house he occupies today. He remembers the teenagers and young adults who would bring their cars out to New Tampa and drag race along the then-two-lane Bruce B. Downs.

The biggest worry back then, Pearson says, was whether you had enough gas to get home.

When Hunter's Green went up, Butler finally felt that "civilization was coming out here and invading us." The growth has brought convenience and luxury to New Tampa, but Butler sighs as she explains what New Tampa has lost.

"Now it's like any other development," said Butler, who currently works as a director of operations for an employment service.

"You don't really know your neighbors. People come and go."

-- John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at balz@sptimes.com.

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