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Naysayers threaten to silence our history

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


Howell Park is one of those places in Tampa where the rich live for the sake of the view.

It is a spread of sky-high condominiums on Bayshore Boulevard, facing east across the flats of Hillsborough Bay.

It also is an unmarked monument to Tampa's past.

Howell Park sits on the 5-acre homestead of the great-grandfather of a man named George Howell.

Howell, 47, is a lawyer at Tampa's most politically wired firm, Holland and Knight, and a member of a family that goes back four influential generations in Tampa. You might think of him as one of those society types, but his manner is too bookish. I prefer to think of him as a walking example of the wonder of this city.

The wonder of this city -- like the rest of the bay area -- is that its history is so fresh. It is real, touchable and alive in people like George Howell.

Howell is also the president of the Tampa Bay History Center, a small place that is easily missed on the first floor of Tampa's bright peach convention center.

The history center's significance is also easily missed by the doorstops posing as fiscally responsible members of the Hillsborough County Commission.

Howell and others fear that, under pressure from one of those rich, perpetual naysayers who likes to think he yanks the strings of government, the commission will break a 3-year-old promise to give the center $17-million to build a museum downtown.

The naysayer in this case is an almost invisible figure, Sam Rashid.

Rashid, a businessman from Plant City, has a wide range of people and institutions he'd like to wreck.

Of late, it's the Florida Supreme Court. Enraged by its election rulings favoring Al Gore, Rashid, a Republican, organized a group to get at least one judge off the bench when he comes up for a retention vote next year.

Rashid is not easily stopped. He was so determined to get Democrat Ben Wacksman off the Hillsborough County Commission last November that he bought up a bunch of Web site names Wacksman might have used to create a Web page for his campaign.

Wacksman lost. The Republican who won, Stacey Easterling, was backed by Rashid and is against giving the money to the history center. Two other commissioners are opposed to the financing. All Rashid needs is one more vote.

The Tampa Bay History Center has been struggling for 11 years. Of late it has been struggling most with Rashid. He didn't return my call. But then again, he ignores requests to meet with leaders of the history center.

Rashid got a letter from the center early this month asking to talk. In reply, he said he thought county government should pay for the basics like roads. Not museums. He didn't even mention the invitation to meet.

The only advantage to not having a museum would be that nobody would know what things were paved over when the roads were built.

You may think that what Sam Rashid & Co. want to do to the museum doesn't matter to you. But it does. In the early 19th century, Hillsborough County extended from Ocala to Orlando to Port Charlotte. The dream is to make this a regional history center, where the lives of whites and blacks, natives and newcomers, cigar makers and tomato pickers and shrimpers, from all the counties around the bay, would be recorded.

While I was at the history center the other day, I bought a T-shirt. It carries on its front a bright copy of an old cigar label, a brand called Tampa Girl. After 18 years here, I figure I can be called one. This Tampa girl has been around here long enough to know that the failure to build that museum would be almost as much a crime as the kind that gets you cuffed by the cops.

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