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Talk About Publicity! No, Not This Publicity | Mary Jo Melone

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Talk About Publicity! No, Not This Publicity | Mary Jo Melone

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Talk About Publicity! No, Not This Publicity
Wednesday, August 22, 2012 — Mary Jo Melone

Al Austin, developer, money man, and the guy who persuaded the Republicans to come to Tampa, must have one hell of a headache right now.  He told the Tampa Bay Times this year that his beloved party’s convention would open the world’s eyes to Tampa.

Yes, indeed. Many of the delegates, the Occupiers, and all the sign-holders who plan to fill the streets while packing heat (since Rick Scott said they could) haven’t even boarded their planes yet.  But already somebody’s eyes have been opened about the city Austin has tirelessly boosted.

His name is Will Doig. He is a reporter for Salon.com and the author of a story, published online last Saturday, with this headline: “Tampa: America’s hottest mess.”

Tampa is nothing but sprawl. Half of its downtown is devoted to parking.  Although good people try to do good things -- at least in the city itself -- the surrounding counties are dominated by birthers who have no sense of the common welfare.  This is more or less what Doig writes. Urban planning?  What urban planning? Developers get to build whatever they want, no matter how much it mucks up the landscape. There are few parks and bike paths. Pedestrians are an endangered species.  So are good-paying jobs and creative people who clamor for them. Even shade is in short supply.

Doig wraps up his love note by saying essentially that Tampa is a tea-partier’s dream. It’s my money, and my risk, so if I want to put a housing development in the  middle of a swamp, and I own the swamp, I can build those houses. Give me my highway, and get out of my way. Don’t tax me to give that guy a bus ride. You want me to pay people how much? Forget it. I’ll just go somewhere else where they’re grateful.

The Republicans, however, will be nuts about Tampa, Doig writes. “The GOP will find a lot of things that exemplify their commitment to not investing in the future….You could fairly call the GOP vision for the country the Tampafication of America.”

Now, this hurts. Doig is wrong; the Tea Party, and this is not a small point,  does not dominate Tampa or the rest of the Tampa Bay region.  It also hurts because Doig is otherwise right.  You cannot blame a bad economy and record foreclosures for 700,000 people without a college education and, beyond the waterfront, a vista that is mostly asphalt and concrete. And who needs the Tea Party in a place where nobody under 60 with an innovative idea gets phone calls returned as fast as the real estate man?

Austin, who is over 80, was one of the men who built modern Tampa, and as the convention illustrates, it’s still their show. And because this is still their show, Tampa Bay is trapped by their thinking; the next generation of leaders has not yet entirely broken through to set its own agenda.

And that is the last reason why Doig’s words hurts. All these guys have wanted, for years, is good PR in the carnival barker’s belief that smoke and lights are what bring people into the tent. That works in circuses, not cities. And because it does not work in cities, Tampa gets reviews like this one in Salon.  There are certain honors cities want; having a word like Tampafication coined in your honor is not one of them.

Mary Jo Melone, former columnist with the Tampa Bay Times, is a writer in Tampa.

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