Riverwalk fans feel the sting

Published June 9, 2006

A big, fat bummer.

That's what I call Gov. Jeb Bush's axing of $3-million in state money for Tampa's Riverwalk project.

I might even say it's a diss on Tampa. But we stand in good company. Bush slashed a record $449-million in hundreds of projects, including $5-million for the worthy Moffitt Cancer Center.

So, for now, that leaves Tampa beating the drums for more money to pay for the $40-million walkway linking Tampa Heights and Channelside.

City officials admit they were disappointed but not deflated. Mayor Pam Iorio vows that the 2.4-mile Riverwalk will happen one way or another, hopefully by Super Bowl 2009. It just might take more time and creative thinking.

Though $3-million seems like chump change for a $73.9-billion state budget, no one should be shocked by the veto. Bush has a history of nixing projects he deems more local than regional, preferring a more conservative approach.

I respect that, given he could have funded every project on the list without feeling a pang of guilt. He's out of office in January. Why not make a bunch of friends on the way out and let the next head of state worry about boring stuff like savings and insurance?

Instead, he miffed some locals, who say his Riverwalk veto smells of party politics. The governor gave St. Petersburg, which has a Republican mayor, $4-million to help move the Salvador Dali Museum to a storm-safe location, bringing the state's total contribution to $8-million. In Tampa, Iorio is a Democrat, albeit a low-key one.

Some local Democrats scoff at the partisan notion. State Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, called it more a case of priorities.

"I had a feeling the Riverwalk would show up on the cut list,'' he said. "The ones that do make it tend to be in the hopper for a long time. He saw this as not having paid its turn yet.''

Even if it were all about politics, then Tampa shouldn't rule out state money in the future. The next governor could be a Democrat, and Tampa's own Jim Davis is among the contenders.

So Tampa should revamp its pitch to stress the regional significance of the Riverwalk. And former Gov. Bob Martinez, the city-contracted lobbyist for the project, should seek more face time with the next governor. (He only briefly spoke with Bush about it.)

Few can deny that the Dali is a statewide treasure that attracts people near and far. But if all goes as planned, so will the Riverwalk.

I'd argue that Tampa's project is even more important.

Next to Busch Gardens, the Riverwalk would be Tampa's biggest attraction, providing access to the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Museum of Art and the future Tampa Bay History Center. It would help us compete with Pinellas County's beaches and Orlando's theme parks.

Dan Mahurin, chairman of the Friends of the Riverwalk and head of SunTrust Bank in Tampa, says the city can try again for the money next year. In the meantime, his group will continue seeking federal grants and large private donations.

The project relies on about 60 percent of its funding from the private sector and 40 percent from the public sector. So far, Friends of the Riverwalk has raised $550,000 in donations for construction and nearly $1-million for overhead costs, such as promotional materials and accounting services.

Obviously, they've got a long way to go. Losing the $3-million, plus another $2.5-million for a parking garage for the Riverwalk and other downtown attractions, stings but doesn't cripple.

Tampa has no time to dwell.

The Super Bowl will be here faster than we think.

THE LAST DROP: The inaugural Tampa Riverwalk Duck Derby benefiting the Riverwalk is set for Nov. 4. For a nominal fee, people can buy yellow rubber ducks, which will race down the Hillsborough River. The winner of the fastest duck will win a yet-to-be-determined big prize.

Susan Thurston can be reached at thurston@sptimes.com or 226-3394.