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Urban culture clash

The daunting task for Tampa's new "arts czar" is convincing creative types that home is where the art is.

Published August 10, 2003

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Paul Wilborn is a former journalist and musician whose familiarity with Tampa’s art scene provided the link to his new job.

TAMPA - The big question is this: Can a city government create a new downtown?

Local history has tended to answer with a resounding no.

But Paul Wilborn believes, and that's a large part of his new job.

Mayor Pam Iorio recently appointed Wilborn to the newly created, $90,000-a-year post of Creative Industries Manager, but around town, he's referred to as Tampa's arts czar.

In taking the job, Wilborn, 51, has in some ways traded his slightly raffish past for buttoned-down establishment.

For many years, the Tampa native was a fixture on the arts scene. He lived for years in Ybor City, writing and acting in plays and performing in a popular band, Paul Wilborn and the Pop Tarts. His day job as a journalist, first for the Tampa Tribune, then the St. Petersburg Times in Tampa, got him around town a lot, too.

He left the city for about five years, going to the University of Michigan for a fellowship. He fell in love with a German reporter there and followed her to Berlin. When that relationship ended, he moved to Los Angeles as an Associated Press writer. He was there when Iorio, elected in March, summoned him home. He and his fiancee, an actress he met in California, have bought a house in Seminole Heights.

"I first met him at an artist's studio in Ybor," says Brad Cooper, an artist who now owns a gallery there. "It was all very bohemian. He was upbeat all the time, a friendly, congenial guy."

"I knew him because he worked in the Pop Tarts," says Melinda Chavez, executive director of the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts, who had a catering business at one time. "He was often the entertainment when I was catering. He was a lot of fun and very personable."

Charm and personality, which everyone who speaks about him acknowledges he has in abundance, are not typical requirements for a municipal job.

And Wilborn is still vague about the exact form his work will take. He has "resisted making too many goals," in part because the city has embarked on a national search for a director of cultural affairs, who will be Wilborn's immediate boss. But he has met with dozens of arts groups and individuals, "starting to find links between business and the arts, to see what we can do to make Tampa a better place for people to live."

And not just any people. He wants "creative people," the kind of folks who are now a buzz word thanks to Richard Florida's best-selling book The Rise of the Creative Class.

"We all went to hear him talk and worshiped at that altar," Wilborn says, "and now we're all true believers" in Florida's idea that cities need to foster creative people to be successful. So, he adds, "in hiring me, the city is saying the arts are important. I want to help arts groups connect to the business community. I want to look for things and events that will put us on the national map."

Wilborn arrives at a time when the new administration of Mayor Pam Iorio, who was elected in March, is refashioning the concept of a cultural arts district inherited from the Dick Greco administration.

About two years ago, Greco unveiled a fancy master plan for the cultural arts district. A year later, city officials presented a design for a glamorous new Tampa Museum of Art that, with an expanded Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, would be the district's crown jewels.

The plan included a revamped, pedestrian-friendly Ashley Drive, a new Tampa Bay History Center, a sweep of park, a riverwalk, and a pricey high-rise condominium near the museum.

Those components are all still in play, Wilborn says, though Iorio acknowledges there are no funds yet for the riverwalk. Speculation is that the history center will occupy another downtown site. The TBPAC expansion is on schedule; but fund raising has lagged for the museum and Iorio has said it won't be built until it's paid for, though she's confident the money will be found. And, most significant, the new administration is revisiting the idea of a high-rise on the original 1.25-acre site.

The district is the centerpiece many in Tampa hope will transform the downtown into a community, not just an complex of buildings.

It's an idea the Tampa Bay area has heard before.

St. Petersburg suffered through two failed attempts to build a large arts, entertainment and retail district in its downtown. The first was a festival marketplace along the waterfront that was defeated in a referendum vote in 1984. Then came Bay Plaza, an ambitious public-private partnership that ended in 1996 with acrimony between the city and the developer. The recent, much smaller BayWalk complex of shops, restaurants and movie theaters has been a hit, but it was built only after other successful independent developments, ranging from high-rise condominiums to an influx of more retail and restaurants, proved viable.

Clearwater city government, too, has tried to macro-manage a master plan, but its residents voted down a referendum in 2001 that would have started a $300-million downtown redevelopment.

But officials in Tampa, including Wilborn, believe this one can work.

"I think there's a rediscovery of the urban experience by people who want to live here," he says. "We can make this a place where people live and work, a place for the arts."

Wilborn is soft-pedaling the arts-district label.

"I want to get away from this label "cultural arts district,' " Wilborn says. "It's not a district because you put a museum there. One high-rise next to a museum isn't going to create a district either."

Still, a lot rides on that high-rise, or any other type of residential development. It's the one part of the plan that can begin the transformation of downtown Tampa to a round-the-clock place to live, work and play, as downtown St. Petersburg has become.

"The linchpin is housing," Wilborn says. "Name a spin-off restaurant or business around the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. There isn't one. You don't fill up downtown areas with people driving in. You fill it up with people living there."

The nearby Channel District, which includes the Florida Aquarium and the Channelside movie/restaurant complex, already is on its way to becoming an urban living center with at least six residential projects planned or under way. But like St. Petersburg's downtown, its renaissance began not with a large development but with more modest residential projects.

Tampa officials agreed in March, near the end of Greco's term, to sell the downtown land near the museum to the Clearwater-based Byrd Corp. The developer's design calls for a 25-story tower with at least 100 units, priced from $200,000 to $500,000. But Greco never signed off on that agreement, leaving Iorio the option to rethink it, which she is doing.

"The concept of a high-rise tower is on hold," says Fran Davin, special assistant to the mayor. "We met with the Byrd people and wanted time to do a review."

She says they are exploring the idea of a low-rise cluster of condominiums, possibly closer to Ashley Street. Because it would require more acreage, they are also looking at demolishing the Poe Garage. They are probably wise to rethink it. Another local developer with a track record of luxury urban housing believes a high-rise condominium, or possibly any kind of large-scale project, in that location is too risky.

"We had a chance to make a proposal on that parcel," says Ian Irwin, chief operating officer of Southeast Companies. His firm built Vinoy Place in downtown St. Petersburg, an upscale combination of four midrise towers and townhomes, but only after smaller, lower-priced urban residential projects were already filling up the downtown, and the adjacent historic Vinoy Resort had been remodeled into a three-star hotel.

"We passed (on the downtown Tampa project) because I didn't have a great sense of who would want to live there. The museum will be there but I don't know if that will be a great generator. The Museum of Fine Arts was in St. Petersburg for years before much downtown residential development happened. This (in Tampa) has the river view and is close to University of Tampa, which is good. But would people want to walk around there at night? And with all the alternatives, why would someone want to live there? We thought it would be a tough deal even if the city gave away that land."

Instead, Irwin is building a 23-story tower on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard, with 50 condominiums priced from $500,000 to $2-million. He says 60 percent of them are reserved.

Chavez remains optimistic about the residential project.

"Someone's going to do it first," she says, "and once that happens there will be a flood of others. I hear rumors about more new downtown housing all over the place."

Iorio, for her part, isn't blinking.

"Our goal is to have a residential community downtown," she says.

Which is where Wilborn comes in. His mission is to bring those "creative" people downtown.

"I think he was a good choice," says Chavez. "He was very much a part of the arts world here and has a history, an understanding of it. And he knows everybody. I see him as being responsible for encouraging and growing arts events in the city, to help create things that will make people want to come downtown. And I don't mean just to the arts district."

One thing Wilborn is clear on is that he's not a fundraiser.

"I'm not going to be out there asking for money that could go to arts groups," he says. "One of the things I want to do is find links between business and the arts. One I see early on is housing for artists. Seed artists into areas and give them the space to rehearse, work, live."

Some specific ideas: "a space bank," in which empty downtown office and retail space could be used by artists, for whom the rent would be lowered or forgiven. The city would help out by providing insurance just for those specific areas. Both would help remedy the traditional money issues that preclude artists from moving into established business districts.

And is that preferential treatment fair to other small, struggling businesses?

"You can't really say it's only going to be for artists," Wilborn says. "Creative people can be defined in a lot of ways."

And what about Ybor City?

"Ybor is the product of too much success and excess," Wilborn says. "I see signs of hope; the viability of megabars isn't what it was. But Ybor is not really my focus."

Wilborn understands that getting things done will take more than glad-handing.

"This is a results-oriented mayor," he says. "Pam Iorio believes the arts are important and we need to show progress in developing links between business and the arts and in making this a better place for creative people to live. The hardest part will be keeping the momentum going. But I'm struck by the optimism of this new administration: that Tampa is on the verge of something."

[Last modified August 7, 2003, 11:04:42]

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