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Millions okayed for zoo, museum

Critics of the arts plan say it does not address the needs of Tampa's poor neighborhoods.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


TAMPA -- Despite bitter opposition from critics who contend Tampa's poorest neighborhoods are being shortchanged, the City Council overwhelmingly gave its blessing Thursday to a $39-million plan to build a new art museum and expand Lowry Park Zoo.

For supporters of Mayor Dick Greco's plan, which earmarks funds from half-cent sales-tax revenue, it marks a major step in Tampa's march toward the status of world-class city that can boast of a cultural arts district.

For detractors, it amounts to a betrayal of neighborhood needs, an insult to voters who approved the so-called Community Investment Tax thinking it would pay for roads, schools and a new football stadium, not museums and zoos.

"I'm a little teary. We're on our way," said a jubilant Emily Kass, head of the Tampa Art Museum, which will receive $27-million.

"I'm elated," said Lex Salisbury, head of Lowry Park zoo, which will receive $12-million for an expansion expected to begin soon.

In Greco's vision, a three-story, 133,000-square-foot art museum will be one of the jewels of a cultural arts district along the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa that will include a history center, a community arts center and an expanded performing arts center.

But don't expect the wrecking ball to show up at the old museum soon. While the $27-million approved Thursday is a start, it's estimated that another $20-million to $30-million must be raised for the new museum to become a reality.

Financing for the rest of the arts district remains far from certain.

The council's 6-1 vote, with council member Bob Buckhorn the lone dissenter, came after a tense morning of debate in the packed council chambers. It started with a final plea by Greco for the council's support. On his lapel was a sticker with a zebra and a paint palette. "Great Museum, Great Zoo, Great City," it read.

"This will change the face of downtown," Greco said. Stressing the economic blessings of an arts district, Greco reminded them that the Performing Arts Center and Tampa International Airport were controversial ideas once, too.

After the vote, Greco stood at the door of the council chambers while a long line of supporters waited to hug him and pump his hand on the way out.

Greco, a lame duck because of term limits, did not have an easy time hawking his plan to a council with three members -- Buckhorn, Rose Ferlita and Charlie Miranda -- interesting in becoming Tampa's next mayor. To shore up support, he had to shave $5-million from his initial plan and channel it to transportation improvements.

Greco sweetened the deal further for Council member Gwen Miller, who had not taken a stance on the issue until Thursday. There was a surprised gasp in the crowd when Miller, who represents some of Tampa's poorest neighborhoods, said she would vote for the downtown plan.

Miller said the mayor promised to complete the widening of the 22nd Street corridor, launch a program of grants and low-interest loans so poor people can remodel their homes, and channel some of the construction work on the arts district to minority contractors.

"I'm hoping he will do what he's committed to do," she said.

Ferlita, in announcing support for Greco's plan, told the crowd "I will not be shy" in asking the administration to meet neighborhoods' needs. Ferlita called it the most difficult vote she has had to cast on council.

Buckhorn said he supported the mayor's vision for an arts hub downtown but thinks the Community Investment Tax funds were meant to be spent on basic infrastructure needs, such as roads and drainage ditches.

"I am going to stand with those people who are in traffic on Bruce B. Downs," he said.

Voters approved the controversial half-cent tax in 1996. In its first five-year budget cycle, it has funded a new stadium for the Bucs, parks and patrol cars, school improvements and jails.

The city expects about $11-million in yearly revenue from the tax during the next five years.

Speaking to the council, critics of the mayor's plan stressed the need for more money for everything from stormwater runoff improvements to mending blighted inner-city blocks. Activist Mauricio Rosas showed pictures of city parks littered with broken glass, neighborhoods lacking sidewalks and cramped and dilapidated recreation centers.

For several New Tampa residents, the problem needing attention was traffic congestion run amok in their neighborhoods.

"I love our mayor and what he has done for this city . . . but he's wrong this time," said Steve Burton. "We have an extremely high misery index in New Tampa."

In stating his case, Greco posed a question: Would you want to raise a family in a city without a quality museum and zoo?

"No one with half a brain would answer yes to that question," he said.

- Times staff writer Susan Thurston contributed to this report.

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