In the fall of 2010 I was hanging out on the balcony of Teatro Restaurant overlooking 7th Avenue in Ybor City. With me was Bob McCann, Executive VP for Neilsen Ratings in Oldsmar. Bob and I spoke about the heyday of the Cigar Era in Ybor, the unique flavor and heritage of the district, and our concern over the slow erosion of what should be a point of pride for Tampa Bay.
The story of Ybor City is one of greatness followed by slow decline over decades. Once the “Cigar Capital of the World”, the area began to show stress as the industry mechanized in the 1930s. Things deteriorated further as “urban renewal”, the I-4 corridor, and fire destroyed much of its historic fabric. Ybor in the 1960s was a bleak and desperate landscape – literally a dust bowl. Liberal wet zoning and city investment in parking, the Centro complex, Centennial Park, the street car, and historic décor attempted to revive the district but fell short. As Bob and I enjoyed our stogies in 2010, Ybor was known primarily for its bawdy nightlife, notorious gangster stories, and high crime rate. We agreed that we would do something together to change that.
Bob offered his company’s sponsorship for a deep-dive census and social media analysis of Ybor’s mix of residents, visitors, and businesses. I offered to take that data and lead a strategic planning workshop comparing Ybor’s profile with several “aspirational cities.” Two guys on a balcony probably weren’t going to change the world but just maybe we could help promote change in Ybor City. Six months later came a one page roadmap for moving Ybor forward.
The Vison was clear: develop a “ … unique urban community melding beautiful historic architecture, a celebrated multi-cultural heritage, a bustling “main street,” creative businesses, and livable neighborhoods…” Specific strategic objectives included attracting more residents, attracting more visitors, improving Ybor’s image, promoting our ethnic and cultural diversity, preserving our history/heritage, and finally expanding, balancing, and diversifying our business base and retail services.
To add emphasis we undertook a massive outdoor mural project reflecting “The American Journey” of this special district and those who live and have lived here. The mural is on Adamo Drive at 17th St.
Details of its construction and meaning can be found at www.yborartproject.com.
Today, vision is becoming reality through the work of many residents, craftsmen, investors, entrepreneurs, concerned citizens, city officials, law enforcement officers, and a growing population of young and dynamic workers. Visitors are no longer being told “don’t go to Ybor after dark.” Bungalow renovation and single family “infil” projects are popping up throughout the district as well as large loft/boutique apartments and multi-family residential developments. Professional services, craft brewers, and creative business are moving into new buildings and historic structures. The iconic Colombia Restaurant is expanding into several new Ybor venues.
A burgeoning technology, innovation, and rapid prototyping activity is growing around the old historic Ybor Land Management Office and Hillsborough Community College campus. Co-working space and county entrepreneur support facilities are in place. A cyber-security training center and large corporate innovation divisions are moving in, along with the national headquarters for “College Hunks” and Ashley Furniture.
Tampa Bay’s Historic Landmark district deserves a leading role in a book focused on the most attractive lifestyles of the Tampa Bay Region. We offer a compelling mix of nostalgia, diversity, energy, innovation, coolness, and funk. Ybor City is moving forward and again becoming a centerpiece of the Tampa Bay brand.