Every city has its nominees for ugliest major street. Fowler Avenue is definitely a Tampa contender.

It stretches wide and pedestrian-unfriendly, running east to west between the sprawling University of South Florida and car-clogged Interstate 275, a vista of fast-food joints, strip malls and pawnshops fronting bleary neighborhoods. It’s been this way as long as I can remember.

But take a ride down Fowler and surrounding environs with former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and he does not see this. Or maybe he’s just trying to get everyone else to picture what he sees next.

It is no surprise to find Sharpe — possibly the wonkiest, most wired person to hold local office, a man once caught texting under his program at a funeral — at an autonomous vehicle summit in Tampa this week. (He sounds particularly excited about his upcoming ride in a driverless Tesla.) Sharpe left office two years ago and became executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, with its rather lofty goal of transforming this university area into a more vibrant, happening place.

So where you see blight, believers picture a thriving center for research and medical tourism. They see more restaurants and craft beer pubs and hipster coffee shops. They see a place people not only want to work, live and play — those current buzzwords — but also to study and stay. Such innovation districts, I am told on our ride, are hot.

And, here? Really?

Sharpe points out that USF already has a lot of the interesting stuff that comes with a big college campus, like the Moffitt Cancer Center and its big plans to expand. Medical tourism? Families who travel here will want places to go and things to do, he says. The new owners of the once-downtrodden University Mall are pumping bucks into the place, and new outparcel restaurants are bustling. There’s the Yuengling Brewery and also Busch Gardens already bringing in millions of tourists a year. People said World of Beer was crazy to take a chance here, but they did.

And how about the potential for that prime Museum of Science and Industry site when MOSI moves downtown, or that tantalizingly underused property off I-275, and by now Sharpe is talking really fast.

Credit him with walking the walk: A South Tampa devotee, he now has an apartment amongst the new ones sprouting just south of campus.

It feels like something really may be building here.

The Alliance had four members when Sharpe got on board and now has more than 200, including some muscle like Tampa Electric and GTE Financial. A recent community event — held in the mall, by the way — drew Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, USF president Judy Genshaft, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and County Administrator Mike Merrill, who said the county is committed on this. Richard Florida, an author considered a voice on cool cities, spoke.

And they recently scored a $1.25 million state grant to look at how to transform Fowler, the road that runs through it.

Sharpe says he wants this to be “a place where the best and brightest come together to solve the world’s problems.” Even if you are still dubious, it is clear he believes, and maybe a lot of other people are starting to, too.

Sue Carlton, Time Columnist
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Tampa Bay Times