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    What is Largo?

    The city, once home to many of the county's pioneers, searches for its own ''brand identity.''

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
    Jan Snyder holds step-granddaughter Breanne Zsiga, 5, at the playground in Largo Central Park on Friday morning. Snyder lives in Daytona Beach with her husband, Joe, and visits Largo once a month to see their family. Breanne and her sister, Jessica, always request to go to "Barney Park."
    LARGO -- To the casual observer, this city is a bit of a paradox.

    First, some visitors should not mix up Largo with Key Largo, the well-known tourist spot.

    "People do sometimes get confused, thinking it has something to do with the Keys," said Wit Tuttell, public relations director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

    Centrally located in a county surrounded by the alluring waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, Largo doesn't have what could be called a beach.

    Then, there is the confounding issue of what is in Largo and what isn't in Largo. For example, Largo Mayor Bob Jackson lives in the city limits, but he has a Clearwater mailing address. Largo is the closest city to the international airport, yet it is called the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

    Rodney Dangerfield might be tempted to sum it all up: "No respect."

    It is no wonder that many who live and work outside Largo know little about the city. Recognizing the city's identity problem, area chamber of commerce officials talked to city commissioners Tuesday about an effort to create what they call a "brand identity" for Largo.

    Thus, the question: What is Largo?

    The answer varies, depending upon whom you talk to. For many, it is Largo Central Park.

    "Largo is the playground of Pinellas," a friend suggested to Largo resident Barbara Smith.

    For some, it is a great place to live and raise a family. For others, it is an array of things, ranging from the Largo Cultural Center to the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.

    "It's centrally located. It's close to the beaches. There's a lot they can do with this place," said Frank Alfano, co-owner of Alfano's, an Italian restaurant on Clearwater-Largo Road.

    Others who work in Largo but live elsewhere declined to be interviewed. They didn't know much about the place, they explained.

    No one mentioned Largo's motto, "City of Progress," perhaps confirming the city's perceived identity problem.

    Bob Delack, president of the Largo Historical Society, believes the concern of city officials and business leaders is "true of a lot of towns in Florida because of the development we've experienced over the past 30, 40 years. We've had a lot of people moving in who don't have much attachment to the town."

    Others insist there is no identity problem.

    "I don't think they have as bad an image problem as they think," said Don Hazelton, 60, secretary and treasurer of the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida Inc.

    After all, not all small cities have a song written about them.

    There's a land 'neath sunny southern skies

    And from the sea, it's verdant shores arise

    Where trees bend low with gold fruit aglow

    'Tis peerless Pinellas, town of Largo

    * * *

    Those are the first words of the Song of Largo, written by Marcia H. Tritt in 1924, according to Largo, Then 'til . . ., a book of city history compiled by the Largo Historical Society.

    Largo was incorporated in 1905. Some say the city was named for Lake Largo, a 50-acre body of water that was filled in the 1930s. Others say it was named for Largo, Scotland, by Scottish immigrants who settled the northern part of the county.

    Largo was home to many people whose names you now see on Pinellas streets and parks. The Taylors. The McMullens. The Belchers. They all have Largo roots.

    Tuttell believes Largo should seize upon that history and promote it, along with places such as the Cultural Center. The center, along with the Bay Area Renaissance Festival, is often discussed with travel writers who ask about Pinellas.

    "I think it's important for them to stay who they are," said Tuttell, a Largo resident. "If everybody is the same, it's not interesting."

    Evelyn H. Williams has lived in Largo for 82 years. She can still remember the sound of the Largo Methodist Church bell ringing on Sunday mornings, awakening the town from its sleep to get dressed for Sunday school.

    She effortlessly paints a Norman Rockwell-like image with her words of the Ulmer Park of her youth, a sun-splashed world of political rallies with lots of hot dogs and lemonade to go around and children romping about the grass in the heart of downtown Largo.

    "It was a great place to grow up," said Williams, 86.

    Like many communities across the country in the 1960s and '70s, Largo grew up. The baby boom of the 1950s created the need for subdivisions that transformed Largo from a town to one of Florida's 20 most populous cities.

    Williams understands the growth, but she believes Largo has forgotten where it came from.

    "It isn't the Largo I grew up in," she said wistfully.

    Conversely, Brenda Alvarado is enamored by what she calls a "family-oriented town." Alvarado, 35, a computer programmer at Mason & Associates, is preparing to buy a home in Largo.

    "A beautiful place to live," said Alvarado, who currently lives near Largo.

    Still, her friends don't come to Largo much.

    "They don't come here much because Largo doesn't get the publicity that other towns do," she said.

    There are no baseball teams that play their spring training games in Largo. Until the city annexed St. Petersburg College's ICOT Corporate Training Center last year, there were no college campuses within city limits. Tampa Technical Institute also has a campus on Ulmerton Road. Although Largo is the third largest city in Pinellas, Interstate 275 does not cut through the city.

    America was introduced to Largo in 1982 through a group of elderly men who became known as the "Largo Eight."

    Pinellas Sheriff's vice detectives broke up a penny-ante poker game at the Ranchero Village Mobile Home Park in Largo. Eight men were issued misdemeanor citations for playing poker, drawing scorn upon Largo from nationwide news coverage.

    "Ludicrous Largo," one out-of-town critic wrote to City Hall.

    Some wrote the chamber of commerce, threatening never to move to the city.

    What they didn't know, though they may not have cared, was that the city of Largo had nothing to do with the arrests.

    "I think it's gotten a bum rap as a city," Smith said.

    Smith, 63, moved to Largo in 1992 after spending 19 years in Belleair Bluffs. Largo won her over through its convenience. Smith said she was tired of driving across the Belleair Causeway to get groceries.

    A member of the chamber's Economic Development Committee, Smith thinks Largo has a lot going for it.

    "Over the years, it has emerged from a country town to progress and parks," she said.

    Still, Smith believes Largo has to do a better job of praising itself.

    "I think they have to decide who they are and how to market itself," she said.

    - Information from Times files was used in this report.

    At a glance

    Population: 69,371

    Median age: 47.5

    Median housing price: $98,444

    Residential land: 6,288

    Housing units: 40,751

    Mobile homes: 12,132

    Famous Largo folks: actor Karen Austin; Brad Radke, baseball player for the Minnesota Twins; Sandra Mortham, former Florida secretary of state; Terrence Mann, Broadway star

    Parks: John R. Bonner Nature Park, Ulmer Park, Lake Villa Park, McMullen Park, Northeast Park, Northwest Park, Sunshine Park, Woodrow Avenue Park, McGough Nature Park and Largo Central Park

    Recreation facilities: Bayhead Tennis & Athletic Complex, Belcher Soccer Complex, Highland Recreation Complex, Largo Sports Complex, Southwest Sports Complex, Whitesell Softball Complex, Largo Golf Course and Largo Community Center.

    Shopping: Bay Area Outlet Mall, Largo Mall, Tri City Plaza

    Theater and music: Largo Cultural Center

    When I think of Largo, I think of . . .

    The Times is asking readers, in 50 words or less, to describe their perceptions of Largo. Send your thoughts to the St. Petersburg Times, c/o What is Largo?, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756, or e-mail them to stirgus@sptimes.com. Your responses will be printed in next Sunday's edition of the Largo Times.

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