In the competition to keep Tampa Bay's major venues abreast of other cities', to hesitate is to fall behind. Any lapse can ultimately prove costly over the long term.
By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published May 14, 2004
In "trendy" downtown St. Petersburg, the Pier is suddenly looking outdated and in need of an overhaul.
In downtown Tampa, where talk of revitalization is all the rage, the city convention center is criticized as too small and bound for expansion.
Even the early buzz about Tropicana Field, the St. Petersburg home to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for just seven years, is that it's aging fast and slipping in appeal behind other, newer major league stadiums.
As the Tampa Bay area economy continues to mature, it's discovering that keeping its major venues competitive and up to snuff is a constant challenge. One that demands smart and flexible planning. An aesthetic eye. And lots of money.
When it comes to keeping up with the Joneses, there's no rest for aspiring metro areas. The old refrain, out with the old, in with the new, is an eternal temptation and fiscal headache for economic developers.
It is true that none of these three area landmarks are in desperate straits. Yes, the Tampa Bay area can certainly ride this improving economy for years without shelling out the big bucks required to update the Pier, expand Tampa's convention center or commit to another baseball stadium.
In fact, it hardly seems fair that these sites have fallen behind the times so quickly.
The Pier's "inverted pyramid" building was constructed 31 years ago, though the pier itself was renovated in 2001. But on an otherwise striking and growing downtown waterfront, the facility is, well, ugly.
Tampa's convention center is 14 years young. But like Goldilocks, the facility has a chronic problem. The mid sized convention center has proved too big to sustain itself with a stream of small conferences. And it is too small - and still lacks enough nearby hotels - to attract the whopper conventions that book at bigger facilities in Orlando and Miami Beach.
What to do? A task force last year nixed the idea of replacing the convention center for $327-million. Less pricey plans range from adding one larger wing over Franklin Street to building a smaller wing over Franklin and another over the Hillsborough River. All of these ideas and more are still under review.
Then there's the Trop. Hey, I like the Rays (they even won Thursday), but the more major league stadiums I see, the more troubling is the built-on-the-cheap Trop. Stadiums such as Fenway in Boston or Yankee Stadium in New York offer grand history amid aging structures. But newer stadiums that house the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners all offer a greater sense of place. That's important.
Now comes a new home for the Florida Marlins. After much wrangling, the two-time World Series winners say they expect to break ground in Miami on a $367-million stadium near the Orange Bowl to be ready for opening day of 2007. And yes, the 38,000-seat stadium will boast a retractable-roof. No more rainouts for the Marlins.
Don't think for a moment that what the Marlins do is not watched like a hawk by Tampa Bay's economic developers. Each major metro area in Florida - in the country - constantly watches the others and asks the inevitable question: How do we measure up?
Consider what Orlando Sentinel sports writer Mike Bianchi wrote this week about how lowly Jacksonville, a favorite to host the Atlantic Coast Conference championship football game, had won the right to lampoon Orlando's flagging sports prowess.
"Orlando, we've hit the lowest point of all: Even Jacksonville is making fun of our sports futility - and facilities," Bianchi wrote. "We have become Jacksonville's punch line. We used to make fun of Jacksonville's countrified, fish-and-grits image, but guess what? They may be banjo pickers, but we're second fiddle. Remember that strange aroma in Jacksonville everybody used to make fun of? Turns out it's the sweet smell of success."
Translation? Jacksonville got hungrier and Orlando failed to notice.
Metro areas that sit still for too long are doomed to fall behind. It's kind of like the homeowner who defers maintenance on his house for too long. The fix-up costs are always heavy.
Nor are the Pier, Tampa's convention center and Tropicana Field the only public structures struggling to stay current. In St. Petersburg, the Times Arena at Bayfront Center is scheduled for demolition next year. The adjacent Mahaffey Theater is a topic of constant local debate as to how to make it more competitive as an entertainment venue.
Across Tampa Bay, the St. Pete Times Forum - Tampa's downtown home of the Tampa Bay Lightning and numerous concerts - now finds itself facing new competition from the $23-million, newly-named Ford Amphitheatre under construction on the Florida State Fairgrounds.
The competition game among metro areas is much the same in corporate relocations, funding for education, high-end shops and the economic quest for biotech businesses.
It's all downright Darwinian. If you snooze, you lose.