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Orlando beckons black social set

Many Tampa Bay middle class professionals find a more welcoming, active social scene down the road.

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
Published August 23, 2004

The Tampa Bay area is home to three professional sports teams, more than 2-million people, countless bars and restaurants and some of the best weather in the nation.

With all that, you'd think no one could complain about the social scene.

Except for scores of area black professionals, who say the dating situation is so bad their only recourse is driving to Orlando on Friday and Saturday nights.

Why?

To meet more people like them.

Not that there aren't thousands of black people spread throughout St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa. But events targeting young, single, middle class black professionals often fail to fill a ballroom.

"After a while in Tampa you see the same people and more of the same people," said 25-year-old Kamal Maragh, a Tampa mortgage consultant. "Orlando is a tourism mecca. It attracts different people. I just think you have a better time when you go out there."

The problem isn't numbers; both regions are home to a similar number of black professionals. Instead, black professionals say they're drawn to Orlando because it works harder to cater to their tastes, is more welcoming of outsiders, and boasts a more cohesive community of middle-class African-Americans.

Leah Fennell, a psychiatry resident at a Tampa hospital, said she went through culture shock when she moved to Tampa from Nashville, where she graduated from Meharry Medical College, a historically black institution.

"Nashville has Fisk, Tennessee State University and Meharry, and there is a prominent black professional presence there," said Fennell, 29. "Here it was just very different. A friend of mine heard that Orlando had a different vibe to it. ... She told me about this professional party, so we got dressed up and went."

Fennell met a man at that New Year's Eve soiree in 2003. She and her boyfriend are still together, and Orlando beckons her every weekend.

Contessa Dorsey, 27, an engineer with Lockheed Martin who lives in Tampa, also has frequented Orlando social events: "I think Tampa Bay has a significant black middle class, but not a large one. The people here in Tampa feel like there is no place to go where there are working professionals. Whereas in D.C., they have places where professionals go out on Thursday and Friday."

Some newcomers to the Tampa Bay area say they are frustrated because they sometimes aren't welcomed by the local community, said Joan Holmes, an adjunct professor with the Africana Studies Department at the University of South Florida. "There is a strain between the local community and the acceptance of the external black community," Holmes said. "There's a lot of locals who create their own social medium, and it's difficult for the outsiders to infiltrate that."

In statistical terms, Orlando and the Tampa Bay region are comparable. The Orlando metro area has 259,618 black residents. The Tampa Bay metro area, which includes Clearwater and St. Petersburg, has 265,282. Orlando does have a slightly larger population of 24- to 45-year-olds black residents than Tampa Bay.

Educational attainment is similar as well: Orlando is home to 18,238 African-Americans who are 25 and older with bachelor's or graduate degrees; the Tampa Bay region claims 17,501.

But single black professionals around Tampa Bay say they don't know how to find one another because there is no one, central downtown area or a series of upscale black neighborhoods like those in more cosmopolitan cities like Atlanta and Chicago.

Holmes, who teaches a class on major black philosophers, says that every year she receives perhaps half a dozen papers from students about dating in Tampa Bay.

"Black middle-class young people, they like downtown," Holmes said. "In Atlanta on a Saturday night, there would be lines down the street trying to get into the clubs. That doesn't exist here. Most of their clubs are in malls or in the suburbs. The ones they have had, they don't survive. The locals overpower the middle class, and the middle class stops coming."

Another factor may be residual resentment over the belief that Tampa ran off the annual Florida Classic football game between historically black college teams. It moved to Orlando in the mid 1990s. Local black residents say police, hotels and local businesses were not open to accepting the black dollar.

Orlando was, and since then, word has spread.

"Orlando and Disney? That area is more focused on bringing minorities there," said Dorsey, president of the Tampa chapter of the National Association of Black Engineers. "They open their arms and say, "Come spend your money.' They're about the business, not about thinking you're going to tear up something."

"If you're over 25, raise your hands'

Orlando is home to Grown Folks First Fridays, an upscale meet-and-greet that sees an average crowd of 2,000, including 200 to 300 people from the St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa areas.

On a recent Friday, this urbane crowd socialized inside Orlando's Church Street Station, a lavish, two-story downtown banquet facility with elegantly angled staircases, marble flooring and stained-glass angels gracing the windows.

The DJ came from New York City, playing a mix of black music. The usual Southern "booty shake" music was usurped in favor of classic hip-hop and smooth R&B.

The crowd grooved; various Tampa Bay Buccaneers scanned the dance floor, and the DJ announced over the music: "If you're over 25, raise your hands!"

The dancers were happy to oblige.

"This is more upscale," said 25-year-old Nicole Gibson, of Brandon, an editor at For Kids magazine. She couldn't get over how polished the men looked. "A lot of people from Tampa talk about these parties."

Grown Folks is the brainchild of 34-year-old Pat Nix, a professional events promoter. It attracts an elite crowd because of the setup, he said. The dress code (no jeans or streetwear) is strictly enforced, party locations are lavish and the cover charge, ranging from $15 to $40, essentially limits the crowd to those with disposable income.

Like many, 30-year-old Timiko Gibson of Tampa heard about the parties through her alumni connections at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

"I already know the history," said Gibson, an insurance adjuster. "If I want to go out, I definitely want to go to an adult event."

Nix, who graduated from FAMU, also coordinates the parties for the Florida Classic through his company, Frontline Promotions.

"A lot of people are driving from Tampa," said Nix, referring to Grown Folks. "It's a strange market. I think that the people there are just so used to not having anything nice."

Nix, who lives in the Orlando area, added: "I've gone out in Tampa several times and thought to myself, "There's a lot of black professionals.' I'm going to see if we can do something about the clubbing situation."

Nix's isn't the only Orlando business cashing in on the black dollar. Universal Studio's CityWalk has two clubs, Bob Marley Cafe and Motown Cafe, that are hits with Tampa Bay residents, and black people from across the country. Disney's Pleasure Island is home to the BET Soundstage and the House of Blues.

Orlando also has several restaurants and clubs that regularly attract large groups of African-Americans. Plus, Orlando has played host to everything from the Florida Classic to the annual convention for the National Black MBAs Association.

It all indicates Orlando has succeeded in luring and serving a black middle class, said Dr. William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution who discovered Orlando is becoming home to thousands of relocating blacks.

"I think that blacks want to move to places where there is an established black middle class or a growing black middle class," he said. "We still live in a society where racial networks are important in addition to general networks."

As the Tampa Bay area's taste matures, some institutions are trying to cater to that crowd. On certain days of the week, black professionals throng the tiny dance floor at the Blue Martini in International Plaza in Tampa. Minigroups gather on Saturday afternoons at local parks, and some black fraternities host fancy $50-a-person boat rides or casino nights.

Black professionals also frequent the Fox, a jazz club near WestShore Plaza, and Sweet Serennah's, a black-owned restaurant in Ybor City.

Yet for middle-class blacks, the clubs of Ybor City are good only for the occasional jaunt. Why? Too many scantily clad teenagers and clubs that primarily play Billboard Top 40 music.

Faze 2 Lounge, which opened near Busch Gardens in Tampa on Valentine's Day, features a large dance floor, sushi bar and the all-important dress code.

The combination is working. On any given weekend, the line runs out the door.

Club spokesman Jerome Townsend, who is from Detroit, said that the owner never considered creating yet another"booty bar" - the kind of place that welcomes people under 21 and encourages sexually charged dancing.

"Booty bars make money, but not all money is good money," said Townsend, 51, who says Faze 2 has attracted everyone from teachers to judges. "The intention was to go after the professional. There wasn't anything like this in Tampa. . . . You don't want to go out in a suit and tie and see someone next to you in jeans."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 727 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 23, 2004, 00:24:15]


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