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A couple of underdogs learn to roll with the times

By MICHAEL CANNING

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 4, 2001


Larry Smith never would heed the old saying "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." But he's learning.

Smith served one term on the Tampa City Council, long enough to figure out who had the real power at City Hall. So, in 1991, he challenged incumbent mayor Sandy Freedman.

A moderate Republican, Smith was an underdog when he was elected in 1987, beating heavily favored developer Jack Rodriguez. He figured he could do the same against Freedman.

The mayor raised $300,000, Smith $40,000. She won 71 percent of the vote.

Undaunted, Smith challenged local political legend Jan Platt for the County Commission in 1996.

The underdog lost again.

So Smith bowed out of politics to focus on his underdog business, Handyman Rent-All on S West Shore Boulevard.

The shop folded in December 1999.

Why?

"Home Depot," Smith says. The hardware chain proved too big to beat.

He already had branched out into construction, "building replicas with modern materials of the old-style, West Tampa, bungalow-style house," Smith explains. He's built three so far, one for himself.

He doesn't miss politics. "I'm in better shape than I've been in years," Smith says. "My blood pressure's down 20 points. I've dropped 25 pounds. I don't want to go back on the rubber chicken circuit."

He's still renting tools on the side -- this time for Home Depot.

* * *

Moving from Ybor City to Seminole Heights hasn't been easy for Angelica Diaz.

But she's almost there.

It has been five years since Diaz and her husband, John Ames, closed their popular Mexican restaurant, Angelica's. They occupied a space taken over by Centro Ybor, about where Starbucks is today.

The restaurant was one of the last outposts of the old bohemian Ybor City, a funky, artsy sort of place that helped pave the way for today's commercialized entertainment district.

Diaz and Ames headed for Seminole Heights, where a big chunk of the arts crowd from the old Ybor City boho days wound up.

They were lured to the historic neighborhood by the same things they found in old Ybor -- historical ambience and affordable real estate.

They converted a bungalow on blighted Florida Avenue into an antiques store. Then they went to work transforming a used car lot into Viva la Frida! Cafe y Galleria.

It took seven months for the Architectural Review Commission to approve the design, and $7,355 in impact fees (which Diaz plans to appeal).

The restaurant honors the Mexican artist/icon Frida Kahlo, and evokes a Mexico City hacienda. "With the building standing so far back (from the street)," Diaz said, "we wanted to have colors that screamed." The red, yellow, chartreuse, and violet do just that.

Still, their work is not yet done.

She and Ames are still awaiting a final inspection, but some trial weekend runs have been encouraging.

"People were standing," said Diaz. "But nobody complained. Everybody loved it." The food was free, though donations were accepted.

Most of the customers live in the neighborhood, though she saw a lot of old faces. "What they're telling me now is, "You're bigger and better.' "

- To suggest a newsmaker to revisit, contact Michael Canning at (813) 226-3408.

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