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USF graduate redesigns daily icon, chic party place opens at mall

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2002

Being asked to change the face of the Wall Street Journal is akin to being asked to change the face of Mount Rushmore.

Being asked to change the face of the Wall Street Journal is akin to being asked to change the face of Mount Rushmore.

Whenever you're dealing with enhancing an American institution, it has to be a little daunting. Remember New Coke?

Yet for Tampa's Mario Garcia, the intimidation factor of being a part of the Wall Street Journal's redesign team was minimized by a simple fact: he had already redesigned the Journal's Asian and European editions in 1999.

"By the time the American edition came around, I had already experienced the "Wow, what am I going to do' feeling," Garcia said.

Garcia annually racks up more than 1-million frequent flyer miles handling design projects around the world. Garcia Media has offices in Tampa, Buenos Aires and Hamburg, Germany, and he has done projects in 47 countries.

But none of the projects have been as big as this one; it has consumed Garcia for 22 months. Along with the Journal's Joanne Lipman and Joe Dizney, Garcia has created a more "breezy look" for the paper. The biggest change will be adding color to the front page.

The new look debuts Tuesday, and it should be a day of great pride for Garcia, a University of South Florida graduate.

* * *

It's new, it's blue and it's packed.

Blue Martini at International Plaza has created a buzz even though it's only been open for 10 days. Friday night was its most successful to date with a capacity crowd inside and a line outside stuck behind a velvet rope.

A plaque declares "fashionable attire only," so I was glad I was sporting my chic ensemble of sport coat and mandarin collar shirt. (Well, it was chic in 1993. Or was that 1988?).

By 11 p.m., the line outside was at least 80 people long as a live jazz band gave way to diverse deejay choices ranging from Sinatra to salsa. The lounge's stylish design emulates New York-style martini bars, and usually allows patrons to flow from the bar to the lounge, across a small dance floor and out to the patio deck.

But it was hard to flow anywhere Friday with a standing-room only crowd of young professional men like South Tampa social icon Ken Walters, modelesque women, middle-aged voyeurs like me and one group that appeared to come right off the set of The Sopranos.

A martini menu is offered ($8.95 each, ouch!) along with a selection of appetizers that could double as a meal. But dining at Blue Martini is probably best during happy hour. As the night progresses, the lounge slowly evolves into more of a dance club.

Whether the Blue Martini buzz lives on remains to be seen, but I'm betting it will play a big role in making International Plaza a nighttime destination. Maybe people are going to get accustomed to partying at the mall.

* * *

Every day of a special session in Tallahassee is budgeted at $40,000, but that figure was determined more than a decade ago.

Be honest, couldn't you rewrite the education code and get everyone to agree to it if you were paid $40,000 a day?

* * *

California-based P.F. Changs China Bistro will open its first Tampa Bay area location at WestShore Plaza in the first quarter of 2003. The 7,000-square-foot restaurant will be close to Maggiano's and the Palm.

* * *

Did you see Public Agenda's nationwide survey about the increasing rudeness among Americans? One of the findings said no particular area of the country was more rude than another, which is surprising given the reputation of places like New York City and, sad to say, Florida.

A lot of my out-of-town friends, particularly those from the Midwest, whine about the greetings -- or lack thereof -- they have received in Florida.

I always argue that our many transplants are not as outgoing as they get adjusted to life in a new town. Your comfort level has to be higher if you're in a place you grew up in like Sheboygan or Bloomington.

We natives can ease the transition by being a little friendlier: wave at neighbors, say hello on the elevator, brake so someone can get in the line of traffic and put down the cellular phone when you're buying stuff in the store.

That's all I'm saying.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com.

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