Of zombies, sunshine & me-too

October 24, 2012

Lovely people in Tampa, but all I could think was: 

this is what would happen if you put the city of Des Moines 
in an asparagus steamer.
Gail Collins, NYTimes

I lived and worked in Tampa, Fla. for a long time, mostly splitting my time between it and the greater San Francisco Bay area.

People who live in west central Florida believe it’s paradise: sunny and tropical with beautiful blue skies, dramatic thunderstorms and sugar-white sand beaches. Snowbirds? They love it.

The truth is that if you love water sports, golf and hot, humid weather, Tampa Bay area’s the place for you. Real estate is fairly reasonable, the Gulf of Mexico is alluring and you don’t have to shovel snow. It’s a pretty laid-back, pressure-free existence.

If you were going to be stranded on a tropical island, well, this would make a pretty one.

A notable civic campaign

Tons of civic pride in the area, too. Residents are super-enthusiastic boosters. Sometimes, though, it got a little old. When I lived there, the business community was fond of holding what I used to call “masturbation luncheons,” during which all the same people got together in all the same venues having the same meal and congratulating themselves on this wonderful city.

No one seemed to notice that the luncheons were a constant stream of…self-congratulation. There was a distinct lack of outsiders promoting the area, but the business community was so busy congratulating itself that it failed to notice.

And failed to understand why more businesses weren’t attracted to the area. Or why the Olympic Committee rejected Tampa’s bid for the games.

I knew why.

The truth is that Tampa is a generic city.

That was a well-kept secret until the Republican Convention visited this past summer and attendees (and reporters) saw the place up front and personal.

Some reporters couldn’t help but comment on it, as reporter Mark Holan of the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported recently. Some quotes from his story:

“Despite some nice buildings here and there, I found most of downtown, alas, to be a sun-blasted pit in the summer,” said Kevin Baker of the New York Times. “Literally half of the area consists of parking spaces… The lack of sufficient mass transportation, the emptying out of most of downtown after business hours, and the alienating architecture made it much like all too many other American cities.”
I worked downtown for 12 years, and Baker has a point. We all high-tailed it out at the end of the day. Nights, the place became a ghost downtown. The only reason I knew that is that I often drove through downtown as a shortcut on my way home nights after teaching. Not too difficult to imagine zombies popping out of the darkness.

Baker’s most cutting observation came in an email to Holan, when he said “… the lack of shade, the endless parking lots, and the lack of people made it seem all too often like the set for some dystopic zombie movie.”

Not what the city fathers (and I do mean fathers, there are no city mothers in Tampa) had in mind.

Here’s the problem: few of the movers and shakers in Tampa have been able to look at the place squarely, come up with a plan to identify and capitalize on its true strengths and then implement that plan to help strengthen the economy. And differentiate it.

Instead, Tampa’s  tried hard over the years to jump on the bandwagon of other cities’ success.

When I arrived in the mid-90s, the city fathers fancied themselves the Florida version of Silicon Valley, even trying to coin the term Silicon Beach. Of course, they lacked a world-class educational institution like Stanford, innovative thinking like that of the many Silicon Valley originals–from semiconductor guys to Apple, Google — and hundreds of others intangibles that make up the alchemy of the California tech industry.

For a while, Tampa  fell in love with urban theorist Richard Florida’s (no kin) Creative Class concept of urban regeneration. It’s no surprise that Florida’s theories have been criticized for whitewashing any negatives and being better suited to politics than urban planning. But only after he collected some nice fees for his work in Tampa.

And with Miami just across the water from Cuba and South America, how delusional was it to believe that Tampa was the “Gateway to Latin America” and try to develop business around that?  Most people knew their geography better than that.

But see, this is the thing about second-rate cities: they don’t start out that way. They become that way when they fail to look at themselves honestly. When they aren’t able to identify their own particular differentiators and capitalize on them. When the people in charge just aren’t smart enough or strategic enough.

When they are just a little delusional.

Take Orlando. More than 55 million tourists a year? I wouldn’t live there on a bet.  BUT. Once Disney opened the door, other tourist attractions followed. Orlando’s built an economy on being a theme park destination. I might not like it. But many, many people do. It’s not pretending to be something it’s not. It found a good thing and rode it to success.

Here’s another secret.  There’s much to like about Tampa. It really is a liveable place most of the year. In fact, I visit every year and still count many locals among my good friends. There are a few true visionaries, men and women who try to make a difference, although the good-old-boy mentality does its best to beat them down.

It doesn’t have to be second rate.  But I just don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.

Is this just a lesson for municipalities?

It isn’t. It’s a lesson for us all.

We each have individual strengths, the unique things we have to offer others. Fulfillment and happiness depend to a greater degree than we might think on identifying these traits and capitalizing on them. On being the best ME possible.

And that’s something I hope Tampa learns.

One comment on “Of zombies, sunshine & me-too
  1. Anonymous says:

    No offense meant, but San Francisco is the way it is DESPITE the City “fathers”. Blessed by location, climate and generations of wealthy natives that took Civic pride in the amenities, it’s now on the verge of crisis. Just look at the ugly skyscraper on Rincon Hill as you come across the Bay Bridge. i refer to it as a “middle finger” raised at all who enter. And they’ve approved more buildings like it which will alter the beautiful skyline for the worst.

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