Tampa swaps 'blue collar' for high-tech 'white'

In 1977, a visitor here looked out of the window of her room in the best hotel in downtown Tampa and remarked what a dilapidated, ugly city it was. Today, if she looked out the same hotel window, she wouldn't see one building that had been there six years ago. In place of the run down, seedy central business district that had dominated this Florida working-class town stands a new glass-and-steel complex with towers stretching 38 stories.

More than $200 million in private money has been invested in downtown Tampa in the past four years, and a second wave of development is scheduled to begin this fall with construction of a 40-story downtown office tower and the beginning of a $1 billion residential and commercial project on an island in Hillsborough Bay.

For years, Tampa's economy centered on cigarmaking and phosphate shipping, which turned the city into one of the few industrial centers of Florida. But business leaders say Tampa's future lies in finance, high technology, and regional sales development.

Tampa was singled out by the best-selling book ''Megatrends'' as the only city in the eastern United States that's booming. Although business leaders concede that this is an exaggeration, they are capitalizing on the publicity and are proclaiming their entry into the big time by hosting next January's Super Bowl.

At the same time, government and private planners are trying to control the growth so that Tampa doesn't become another unmanageable urban sprawl. They are fighting a wide range of development interests and growth, especially in surrounding Hillsborough County.

The less attractive side of growth has become apparent. Recently three Hillsborough County commissioners were convicted on extortion charges. The case involved allegations that the commissioners were trying to extort a bribe from a developer. The remaining two commissioners are trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered government to regain the stability needed to provide for the future.

Tampa's business leaders say the city's growth can be attributed to the general shift of business to the Sunbelt, coupled with an aggressive marketing campaign and the city's industrial diversity.

''We're seeing a fair amount of growth throughout central Florida in both Orlando and Tampa,'' says Lee Menzies, director of Tampa's Downtown Development Authority (DDA). ''People are coming here for the climate, the availability of labor, the ease of the life style, the ease of attracting employees, and the lower cost of attracting employees.''

But as recently as 1977, the DDA was trying to convince downtown merchants not to abandon the city's core. With few workers downtown and little private construction slated, business leaders were afraid merchants would abandon downtown Tampa before it would be saved.

Two years later, announcements of major projects in downtown Tampa seemed to be coming weekly, and by 1981 the central business district was dominated by cranes and steel superstructures.

Downtown Tampa has been able to redevelop quickly and relatively cheaply, Mr. Menzies says, because city government and private business combined forces to attract development and because the core of the city had no populated slums that had to be cleared first.

''Most cities have ghettos that have to be cleaned out, and that causes all kinds of problems,'' he says. ''We want our downtown to be residential, but we don't have the big problems to start with.''

The central business district is only part of the overall growth in the Tampa Bay area that has caused the population of Hillsborough County to jump from 490, 000 in 1970 to nearly 700,000 today. Planners say they expect this number to grow by at least another 150,000 by the end of the century.

That growth has planners scurrying to keep up. Highways already are crowded, with little relief in sight. Sewage and water treatment plants are stretched past capacity, and state environmental officials have to fight to keep development out of wetlands.

''In the past it has been very difficult to keep ahead of the growth,'' says Ron Short, director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Planning Commission. ''Now, we're rapidly perfecting the tools to allow the city and county to manage growth but still allow for considerable development.''

The city government has offered tax advantages to developers who will redevelop blighted parts of the central business district, and an international group of investors has announced plans for a downtown shopping center.

But residents sometimes rebel against the new image that business leaders want to create for their city. For example, movers and shakers in town wanted to build a $42 million performing-arts hall to provide the sophistication that they believe executives look for in a town to which they will move.

But Hillsborough County voters by 2 to 1 rejected a proposal that would raise sales taxes by 1 cent for a year to finance the building. Business and government leaders are looking elsewhere for the money to build the hall.

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